Directors: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Stars: Janelle Monáe, Gabourey Sidibe, Kiersey Clemons
At the beginning of 2020, Antebellum was poised for a spring release, but then the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, shuttering theatres here, there and everywhere. The business went into hibernation, in a sense, but VOD releases – particularly of indies and foreign language films – kept new content flowing. Still, many studios pulled their bigger hopefuls, holding onto them for when they could be presented as intended again.
The reopening of UK cinemas is but a few tantalising weeks off (fingers crossed). Having held onto it for a year now, Lionsgate have suddenly decided to let Antebellum drop now. It feels as though they’ve blinked, or lost their nerve at the eleventh hour. What could have provoked such a decision? Could it be the overwhelmingly negative response the film has received in the states…?
To talk about Antebellum in any depth is to pick open its tiered structure and revelations. So be warned.
We open at a Southern plantation. 19th century dress. The Confederate flag. Black misery depicted in protracted slow motion against stirring strings. A lassoing like a lynching. An execution. Antebellum wastes no time addressing the horrors of slavery, but it seems eager to go further than that. Directing duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz revel in these moments of pain and torture. They’re appalled by them (one hopes), but the result wields Black pain for shock value. It feels exploitative, regardless of the intention.
Janelle Monáe is Eden, our beaten and (literally) stepped-on heroine. I love Monáe. Her music. Her acting in the likes of Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Ever since she was announced as the lead in this ‘horror’ vehicle I was amped for it, and for her. Finally seeing the finished product I feel horrifically torn. She works hard here, and well, but it quickly becomes apparent that the material itself isn’t up to her efforts. Which is not to say it lacks ambition…
Antebellum divides into three acts. This first finds Eden under the gaze of prim mistress Elizabeth (Jena Malone) and sadistic footman Captain Jasper (Jack Huston). You’ll quickly wish for the racial subtlety of Tarantino’s blunt-force Django Unchained. Outspoken new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons) is disappointed that Eden isn’t more vocally and actively opposed to the strict routines, before quickly experiencing the inherent cruelty first hand herself.
A successfully jarring sound cue transitions us to another place and time entirely. In what appears to be the present, Eden is now Veronica, and it is as though the first third of the picture has been an elaborate dream. Veronica – an author and vocal lobbyist for equality and leftist reform – embodies the image of a successful Black woman; educated; well-off; respected; empowered.
This act of juxtaposition attempts to make broad statements of how much things have changed while insidiously staying the same. Snide remarks, talk of an unresolved past and a pointedly placed portrait of the plantation house in the peripheries underscore this, not to mention the direct (and clumsy) referencing of the William Faulkner quote that opens the picture; “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past”. It’s all preparing us for the final reveal of how these ill-fitting parts slot together; the barely-hidden true chronology and the awkwardly confused intent of the whole.
Before it snaps into alignment, this mid section might be credited as the strongest in the film, simply for how pleasingly it pushes us off-balance and into volatile, unpredictable territory – how will Bush and Renz weave these disparate strands into a whole? How will Antebellum unify? Out of misery-porn we’ve been spun a mystery; something that’s far easier to engage with than the one-note gratuity we’ve otherwise endured. Still, it’s not an outright turn around. Veronica’s night on the town with her friends borders on the inane – a film spinning its wheels – and the directing duo feel compelled to chuck us a cheap jump scare in the midst of seeming inaction – a disappointing concession to expectation – just to stay on-brand as a horror piece. There’s no sense of anticipation, or of suspense being nurtured. If anything it fades. And then, bluntly, things come into focus.
Like a conflation of themes and ideas explored in M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Craig Zobel’s The Hunt or, even, conceivably, the Purge series; Antebellum identifies how one person’s fantasy is another’s nightmare. The structural tomfoolery, however, deeply hurts the third act’s sense of momentum or earned ‘occasion’. The whole comes to feel shakily constructed. The house of cards topples. The grim hurts of act one and any emotional connection to it have been distanced from their reprisal at the film’s conclusion. The mid-section becomes a wedge. And neither session of prolonged cruelty and violence comes to feel particularly warranted. The feel-bad lecturing herein can’t help but seem redundant after a year of heavily-publicised racial injustice. It’s exceedingly high-concept conceit suggests that racism in the present has been solved in some way, so that extreme measures might need to be taken to resurrect it. It’s a position that feels privileged and out of step with our witnessed and lived-in reality. The ending doesn’t so much feel righteous as ridiculous.
I expect the hope was that viewers will reach the end and say to themselves, “Man, I’m going to have to watch that again”. In reality, however, Antebellum conjures no such urge. Monáe commits to all of it, but by making gimmicky drama out of a multi-generational pain whose wounds remain open, the filmmakers trip themselves up. These try-hard efforts amount to little more than a broken journey with a bitter aftertaste.