It’s a liiiittle like cheating to let your movie’s epigraph do the heavy thematic lifting. It’s downright superfluous when the story you’re telling displays its point throughout with flashing Vegas lights. But, nevertheless: "The past is never dead," William Faulkner once wrote, which the opening of "Antebellum" reminds us. "It’s not even the past."
It’s a sentiment well worth marinating upon in our time, which finds new ways to vomit up racist hate every day. "Antebellum," a dramatic thriller written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, gives us plenty of opportunities to soak in both the sentiment and the vomit through broad-brush allegory. The film stars Janelle Monae as a 21st-century Black woman who finds herself imprisoned within the horrors of what seems to be a 19th-century slave plantation. The trailers (which spoil that premise, though the final cut of the movie seems to think it should be a twist) promised a reality-bending reckoning with America’s original sin. The actual movie goes there, but unfortunately, its journey is a clumsy one.
Veronica Henley (Monae) is the definition of style and excellence, a thriving social theorist and author with a Ph.D. and a beautiful family. (And, real estate candy watchers should note, a beautiful home.) She thrives on the conference and talk show circuit, giving inspiration to other Black women while destroying racist pundit counterparts with truth bombs.
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That’s not how we meet Monae in the film, though. She occupies two different worlds in the plot, and "Antebellum" first introduces us to her character as an enslaved woman being tortured and maimed on a Southern plantation filled with Confederate soldiers. She’s tried to escape, we’re to understand, along with two other enslaved people, and one of them was murdered by a soldier on horseback for her trouble.
The Black prisoners on this plantation are not allowed to speak, and Veronica is preoccupied with finding the quietest ways to move about the cabin where a white man in Confederate garb (Eric Lange) comes at night and rapes her. The Black prisoners in this hell are lorded over by demons adorned in full Dixie costume, including a sadistic captain (Jack Huston) and a snake in a Southern belle’s bonnet (a particularly deranged Jena Malone, pouring steak sauce on the sets before she takes several bites).
When a new crop of Black prisoners is brought in, a woman dubbed Julia (the always fantastic Kiersey Clemons) shakes up Veronica’s silent, carefully controlled plans to survive. From then, the mystery of how she ended up in this cruel place, what the place even is and how she’ll return home are all put into play.
That mystery could have made for a dark, mind-blowing story had the marketing for "Antebellum" played nice with the actual plot of the film and let its twist be a twist. But bygones are bygones, so might as well focus on the work at hand.
"Antebellum" is shocking and horrific to watch. It should be, considering the subject matter and Hollywood’s history of glamorizing the plantation-era South. In 2020, it’s still difficult to get some local and state governments — including Texas, our Texas — to take down monuments to the traitors of the Confederacy. Justice is denied Black people killed by police. The Faulkner quote at work.
Seeing the institution of slavery stripped of any varnish, and seeing the "Gone With the Wind" aesthetic for the institutionalized system of rape, murder, dehumanization and captivity it was, is necessary work, especially for white viewers.
Seeing those trappings applied to a character who we’re to understand is from the modern era is upsetting to view, and that’s likely the point. I did wonder as I was watching how the gratuitous imagery would sit with a Black viewer. (Co-writer/director Bush is a Black former Houstonite who based "Antebellum" on a real-life nightmare, according to the Houston Chronicle.)
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Unfortunately for "Antebellum" the provocateur, "Antebellum" the movie just isn’t the best. Monae’s a force, as you’d expect, but she’s saddled with awkward dialogue and direction that can’t quite find the tone. Even if you come into the film ready to shoulder its challenges, there’s a touch of schlock the 105 minutes just can’t shake.
The modern-day scenes chafe under cable drama lighting and wooden supporting characters, though an ebullient Gabourey Sidibe does her best to inject life into the 2-D world as Veronica’s BFF. Once the climax charges up to full power in the plantation hell, the movie settles for B-movie thriller tropes. Obviously, we don’t spoil endings here, but "Antebellum" flirts with warmed-over Shyamalan territory in its reveal. And Malone, oh man. She’s a wonderful, reliable weirdo in everything from "Saved!" to "The Hunger Games" films, but her directors did her no favors in letting her go campy in this one.
It’s a powerful sensory experience still: Pedro Luque’s cinematography does give "Antebellum" some punch — sweeping cotton field horror, frames divided in two by ever-so-symbolic walls — and the stomach-in-a-knot score from Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur often punches above its weight class.
Luckily for "Antebellum," Monae is the star. Any time the camera finds her face, whether reacting to a hotel clerk’s microaggression or registering true evil in her midst, the film hits different. Its heart is in the right place, and it will be interesting to see where Bush and Renz take things after an audacious, if uneven, feature debut.
"Antebellum’s" theatrical release was stymied by the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s now available Friday on demand.