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Film Review: “Antebellum” Revisits Plantation Life, and Bad Things Happen

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 17th, 2020

Film poster: “Antebellum”

Antebellum (Gerard Bush/Christopher Renz, 2020) 1 out of 4 stars.

There is a moment, 76 minutes (out of 105) in, where Antebellum, the debut feature from music-video partners Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, reveals the full depth of its wasted potential. We find ourselves in a southern plantation field, African American slaves toiling in the hot sun, white overseers on horseback holding brutal sway over them, when one of those on the ground looks up and sees an airplane, breaking the illusion. Except that we already know, by then, the truth of the situation, so this comes not as a shock, or an exciting premonition of revelations to come, but merely an afterthought, driving home the reality that the film has long since missed its point. Given some of the talent involved in the production, along with the filmmakers’ clear intent to say something meaningful about America’s history of racist violence, it’s a deep shame that Antebellum cannot rise above its internal narrative conflicts to deliver even a modicum of dramatic interest.

The published logline also doesn’t help matters: “Successful author Veronica Henley finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.” In other words, the very “mystery” is unbent from the start. This by no means takes away from the true terror that would befall a modern-day Black woman suddenly thrust into a slave scenario, but it does remove some of the urgency of our questions. Plus, the late, great science-fiction writer Octavia Butler already wrote the ultimate version of this story with her 1979 novel Kindred, in which her protagonist is suddenly forced back through time to the actual antebellum south, rather than the modern-day facsimile on display here. It’s tough to top her insights, and this movie remains far below.

l-r: Kiersey Clemons and Janelle Monáe in ANTEBELLUM ©Lionsgate

Singer/actress Janelle Monáe (Harriet) plays the aforementioned Veronica, though when we first meet her she is forced to go by Eden, a name imposed by her new slave masters, one of whom takes her to bed (after first beating and then branding her). In this horrifying 21st-century racist prison (the truth of which will later come out, though in a manner, yet again, undercutting the efficacy of the reveal), where the whites dress and behave like 19th-century soldiers (and wives) of the Confederacy, a large group of new arrivals leads to instant conflict, given that this is not the actual past and the folks held against their will know their rights. Unfortunately, what they don’t have are guns, and anyone resisting the new order could be shot, as a few are. And so it goes for 38 minutes, when a ringing iPhone then brings us into a flashback destined to explain it all. Sadly, that explanation proves meandering, filled with loose cinematic threads that are unnecessarily dense to untangle.

Joining Monáe in this mess of a script are other decent actors such as Kiersey Clemons (Hearts Beat Loud), Jack Huston (An Actor Prepares), Jena Malone (The Public) and a completely wasted Gabourey Sidibe (Come As You Are). No amount of panic or anger on their faces can clearly communicate what is missing here, which is an effective through line on which to hang our emotions. Racism was and is a problem in this country (and elsewhere, too), and in our current era there are forces working to send us back to a more sinister time. The premise here – that white racists would recreate a plantation of yore for their own sick enjoyment – is ripe, therefore, for brilliant and opportune exploitation. Instead, we just get to watch bad things happen to good people. At least there’s violent revenge at the end. Bring the fire.

Janelle Monáe in ANTEBELLUM ©Lionsgate

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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