REVIEW – ‘Antebellum’ is a bumbled, frustrating, and rather nauseating attempt to connect America’s past and present

When Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture back in 2013, it should have signalled the end of films centred on slave narratives, or, at the very least, a change in direction for future projects. What McQueen delivered can never be matched. If there are still stories to be told of the pre-abolition era, they should be something we’ve never seen before. It’s what made Jordan Peele’s Get Out so refreshingly remarkable. It cleverly used slavery as the basis for a modern narrative that still tapped into similar themes of McQueen’s work.

In a piece of sneaky marketing, the posters for Antebellum boast the film is “from the producer of Get Out and Us,” which might lead you to believe Peele is somehow involved. Or perhaps even Jason Blum. Neither have anything to do with this film, rather two of this film’s producers were behind Peele’s groundbreaking work. That’s might be enough to stick such a tagline on advertisements, but it creates a false sense of integrity this film does not have.

It’s just one example of how achingly Antebellum seeks to be the next Get Out but without the gravitas or nuance that made Peele’s film such a breath of fresh air. A bumbled, frustrating, and rather nauseating attempt to connect America’s past and present, Antebellum is a misguided disappointment. With a convoluted, twist-heavy plot that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush and endless waves of excessive brutality, it’s a film that tries to say so much, yet ends up saying very little.

Set on a Lousiana plantation during the Civil War, Antebellum begins with a brutal, over-stylised prologue sequence that strangely feels like something from a music video. As the camera majestically sweeps around the cotton field, we’re struck by the sight of a young Black slave couple who’ve been caught attempting an escape. As a young female slave desperately tries to run, she’s lassoed around the neck by her cruel owner Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), who quickly dishes out some violent retribution. Subtle is not a word this film understands.

As we soon learn, the woman responsible for organising the foiled escape plane was Eden (Janelle Monáe), a young slave who is savagely whipped and branded with a hot iron for her insolence by her nameless Confederate general master (Eric Lange). The plantation is the home base for members of the Confederate Army, where male and female slaves are forced to pick cotton and punished for daring to speak to each other.

When a new group of captives arrives, it’s left to Eden to explain the strict rules of the plantation to the female slaves including a pregnant Julia (Kiersey Clemons), who seems to have a pre-existing connection to Eden. Meanwhile, in contemporary America, Veronica Henley (also Monáe) appears to be waking up from a terrible nightmare. A noted sociologist, best-selling author, and happily married mother of one, Veronica is in the midst of a cross-country tour promoting her book, Shedding the Coping Persona.

When Veronica crosses paths with a mysterious Southern belle named Elizabeth (Jena Malone), whose casual racism is far from indirect, the author’s entire world is soon completely flipped upside down. Yes, these two timelines are somehow connected, but it’s difficult to explain how without spoiling the utter nonsense co-writing/directing duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have dreamt up. The trailers for Antebellum hint at this film being something of a time-bending horror/sci-fi hybrid when in actuality it’s truly nothing of the sort.

By contrasting both time periods, Bush and Renz present the notion that America is just as racist and segregated as it was during the Civil War, as if they’ve stumbled upon a major revelation that will shock their audience. In the current social climate of the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism permeating through America’s police force, and the white nationalist currently occupying the White House, this is hardly groundbreaking information. There’s a misplaced arrogance to this film that genuinely leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

At one point late in Antebellum, Veronica states, “Our ancestors haunt our dreams,” which is essentially the central conceit of this film. But Bush and Renz choose to showcase the violence and torment of Black ancestors in such gratuitous fashion, it ultimately renders everything as little more than exploitation. Sure, it’s an authentic depiction of the Deep South during the Civil War, but we’ve seen it all before and handled by more astute filmmakers who understand trauma is more than just whips, chains, and the screams of the tortured.

Everything here is presented without any shred of introspection. It’s a horror film by virtue of presenting a collection of horrific images, but with little substance behind them. The shining light of the film is naturally Monáe, who deserves better than this but still somehow manages to elevate the material with her natural compelling screen presence. As forced and hasty as her character arc feels, especially given the cross-crossed timelines, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Monáe try her damnedest to save this film from itself.

When performing as Eden, she’s mostly kept silent, but as Veronica, she’s given the freedom to present a woman whose fierce confidence juxtaposes the oppression of her ancestors. But the hokey dialogue Veronica is forced to spit out during a book tour press event feels wildly generic when compared to the raw power of Monáe’s noted public speaking skills seen at activism events over the last few years. Frankly, it may have been wiser to merely allow the actor to ad-lib this scene and gift her character with Monáe’s own gift for the spoken word.

The supporting characters are crafted with the broadest of strokes, particularly the female slaves, who exist as tormented victims to be routinely beaten, raped, and abused. The rape scenes are barbaric, but Bush and Renz seem to have little interest in delving deeper in the resulting trauma that comes from sexual assault. It’s just more exploitation for the purpose of shock value. For a film that attempts to highlight the experience of Black women in the Civil War era, it fails to tell their stories effectively.

The malevolent plantation owners are all written as racist, maniacal villains, which is entirely who they were, but we’ve seen other slave-based narratives offer some level of depth to these deplorable characters. You don’t have to craft them as something empathetic, but drawing them as cliché caricatures almost pushes the film into satirical territory. In the modern storyline, the delightful Gabourey Sidibe provides some much-needed levity as Veronica’s gal pal Dawn. However, it’s a performance that feels like it’s from another film entirely and Dawn is only there to lighten the dour mood before exiting the narrative almost as quickly as she arrived.

Much like 2018’s problematic Best Picture winner Green Book, it’s clear Antebellum was made with the greatest of intentions. Bush and Renz obviously wanted their film to highlight how America hasn’t progressed beyond the sins of its past, but they’ve presented their intentions in such a messy way that robs the narrative of its potential power. The eye-rolling eleventh-hour twist strips the film of its conceivably subtle social commentary and instead brandishes it in your face ad nauseam.

While Antebellum could have been the film to meet this crucial moment in history, it ultimately stands as precisely the film we really don’t need right now. Films centred on capturing the Black experience of either the past or present have progressed far beyond what’s offered here. By injecting a Shyamalan-like twist into its plot, Antebellum foolishly attempts to present America of both then and now, but can’t effectively appropriate either. For all its grandiose ideas, Antebellum is a shockingly shallow piece of cinema that lacks any true perspective.

Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Tongayi Chirisa, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, London Boyce
Directors: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Producers: Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Forman, Lezlie Wills, Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Screenplay: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Cinematography: Pedro Luque
Production Design: Jeremy Woodward
Costume Design: Mary Zophres
Music: Nate “Rocket” Wonder, Roman GianArthur Irvin

Editing: John Axelrad
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 18th September 2020 (U.S.)