The wittiest thing about Antebellum is probably its title, though that also may be, at first, a source of confusion. Its opening shot — an extended, unbroken bit of cinematic showmanship that takes in the pageantry and cruelty of a Louisiana plantation — seems to locate the action in the midst of the Civil War. Confederate soldiers circulate among the Southern belles and the enslaved workers; and later they boast about some impending victory over the “blue-bellied” enemy. So maybe Antebellum refers not to the Civil War that already happened, but to one that may be on its way. A chilling thought, for sure, and one that a good horror movie might help us think and ponder on. In the wake of Get Out, there is still plenty of scariness and satire to be extracted from the toxic matter of American racism, and there is great potential in a movie that connects the problems of the present with the brutality of the past.
Except, Antebellum is emphatically not that movie. Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and propelled by the charisma of Janelle Monáe, it lines up moments of possible insight and impact and messes up just about every single one of them. That opening shot, for example, is a demonstration of impressive filmmaking skill tethered to a dubious cause, a warning sign to what follows being just as slick, aggressive and foggy-headed. The camera glides through the grounds, capturing all the decorum in the front and all the brutality in the back. Would-be runaways, including Monáe’s character Eden, are subjected to savage punishment, a portrait of torture and murder that doesn’t so much depict dehumanization but almost participate in it.
The Black characters, Eden being the partial exception, are mostly nameless and voiceless, forbidden by their masters from speaking to one another. Instead of singing while they work, they are ordered to whistle. The cotton they spend the day picking is burned when the work is done, a clue that the setting may not be the Old South we’ve come accustomed to seeing onscreen. With its villains — who includes a Confederate commander (Eric Lange) and a plantation mistress (Jena Malone) — Antebellum often seems to operate according to the logic of exploitation, soaking up the voyeuristic excitement of nasty business while bringing little insight.
But then everything changes. We’re soon introduced to a second character played by Monáe: a modern day woman named Veronica, who’s a best-selling author with a Ph.D. in sociology and a life of 21st-century professional and domestic near-perfection. In between speaking engagements, triumphant television appearances and private yoga sessions, she lives in a crazy beautiful apartment with her heartthrob of a husband (Marque Richardson) and their adorable daughter. Slavery, in the historical traditional sense, might not exist in the age of Uber, iPhones, and vegans, but Eden and Veronica’s plights soon intersect in a way that literalizes some truths in a very blunt (and obvious) way.
Antebellum does all of this almost entirely without any kind of fleshing out. Bush and Renz shoot every scene with the kind of tension and control that suggests the duo might have a bright future, but their script adopts a self-defeating structure that doesn’t blur the line between past and present so much as it does, well, the exact opposite. The film’s contorted shape is designed to get the most out of its weak-limbed twist — to help the bombshell land softly and then ripple throughout the rest of the story in both directions. And it works to a certain extent: The realization of what’s going on dawns on you in waves, at first at least. But once the water recedes, the rest of the movie goes out to sea along with it. After the intensity of the first act, the second can’t help but feel inert and more obvious by comparison; there are no surprises left, and also too much world-building to get through for the movie to pierce that deep into racial politics. It follows Veronica as she pals around New Orleans with her best friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles), and their night on the town is riddled with racism hidden in plain sight. Monáe tries her best in her dual roles, but there’s a lack of gravitas in her performance and, also, a serious disconnect between how one character finds her voice and how the other is challenged to use it.
The last thirty minutes of the film are meant to collapse time onto itself, but they unspool in a way that feels detached from everything that came before it; silly and bombastic and to the disservice of some potentially good ideas. Antebellum is spliced together in a way that runs counter to its message — it puts a barrier of America’s bloody past into its own designated zone, and sometimes reaches its claws into the present in order to snag new prey and drag it back to its den for dinner. Yet its those central villains of the past to which Antebellum provides a shallow answer of vague methods and motives. But maybe that’s because the filmmakers behind all of this have seemingly only reached for easy political relevance, all without grasping the political implications of what they were doing. Antebellum seemingly has big aspirations, but its complete lack of connective tissue and abundance of half-baked ideas pushes things to be bluntly clunky, detached, and sour-tasting to the point of befuddlement.
Antebellum is available on VOD