Review: Antebellum (2020)

Antebellum. Directed by Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz. Lionsgate, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Somewhere deep within this movie, there is a great thriller. Clearly following the trend of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), this social thriller attempts conversation-starting imagery and themes but lacks the perspective and strong direction to do so. In fact, some of the creative choices are actually reinforcing some of what the film is arguing against.

            It’s hard to actually discuss the plot of Antebellum (2020) without immediately spoiling things a bit (I’ll get into deeper spoilers later, but there will be mild spoilers here). This discussion is made even harder by the marketing choices used to sell them film. If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you go into the film knowing far too much to appreciate the narrative structure. The first act of the film focuses on Eden (Janelle Monáe), an enslaved woman during the Civil War who makes various attempts to escape the slave owners who torture and abuse her. The second act focuses on Veronica (also Monáe), a renowned sociologist who, while speaking at a conference, has odd experiences that leave her jumpy. The third act (discussed with spoilers below) brings the two acts together.

            The film appears to have noble intentions. The connection of the enslaved narrative to the contemporary attempts to argue that the horrors of the past live on today in white supremacist America; our collective past has shaped our present. There are good little nuggets of communicating this theme throughout. The raising of the confederate flag in act one is accompanied by a distinctly spooky orchestral score that evokes the horrors people should feel when they see this symbol of racism. The conversation between Veronica and Elizabeth (Jena Malone) over Skype in act two features some of the more nuanced ways contemporary racism seeps into everyday conversation. The problem, though, is that at the macro level, so much of the focus of the film relies on depictions of black people suffering to communicate its message. There is no reason to traumatize audiences further with images of black bodies being brutalized. Whereas the film could have just as easily communicated its message through interior conversations (like the one between Eden and Julia [Kiersey Clemons]), the directors resort to images of lynching, raping, branding, and all other manners of violent atrocities. Though I understand the idea here is that we don’t need conventional horror iconography because watching the past should horrify us enough, such an assembly of violence seems to be counterproductive – are we starting a conversation or are we just continuing to reinforce the false narrative that progress is accomplished through suffering?

            There are great qualities in the film. The cinematography is particularly gorgeous. The way the natural world is framed with such beauty in the first act to juxtapose the horrors of what’s happening within it is rather poignant. The greatest asset the film has is Janelle Monáe, who I hope to see in many more leading roles moving forward. She gives her performance the range necessary for the film’s potential, but even such a fine performance can only be effective to a point if the substance is lacking. I have been toying back and forth with a rating for this one and her performance is most of the reason.

Spoilers, ladies.

            Maybe it’s the fault of underdevelopment, maybe that of the directorial perspective, or maybe the marketing campaign’s obviousness is to blame, but the third act squanders its potential of a big reveal because it is so obvious what is to come. Veronica is being held captive and is forced to perform the role of Eden in a Civil War reenactment community. It’s like The Village (2004), but with racism. The final images, where Eden runs out into the “real world,” are supposed to be a breathtaking scene, but we’ve known what the truth is from the beginning, so it loses all impact. Again, the ideas here are intriguing, but do not live up to their own potential.

Spoilers over, ladies.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Twelve points to the costume crew for Veronica’s fab jumpsuits
  • Let’s do a Pop TV sitcom series focused on Gabourey Sidibe’s character, the uplifting and confident, Dawn
  • I swear they added the creepy little child in reshoots to have a supernatural-esque shot for the trailer
  • I love when academics talk in movies because I know the academics who see it will say, “Oh my God, no one actually talks like that,” knowing full-well they all sound exactly like that

The Final Tea

            Antebellum may be noble in its intent, but a lack of clear perspective does not allow the film to carry the same weight as other recent social thrillers, though it should make the case for future lead performances from Janelle Monáe.

GRADE: C+

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