Depending on the concept or theme, horror can be used to push buttons or provoke. Antebellum wants to be the sort of film to ride that line. Recent years have seen horror accel, once again, thanks to filmmakers working hard to lean into their metaphors while delivering on stylish, accessible results. Black voices are very much included, as it’s easy to look at the blockbuster performance of Jordan Peele’s first two films (Antebellum notably shares a couple of producers with both). However, in the case of this film, as well placed as the camera can be, as well as commitment from the performers, an underbaked story can only go so far to have the film make its point.
To describe this film is like tiptoeing on the edge of a pool. Providing too many details will let the viewer in too deep, so I’ll try to keep it dry. In one timeline, a slave woman, Eden (Janelle Monáe), surrounded by Confederate soldiers, is subjected to extreme violence on a plantation where even speaking without permission is met with the harshest of punishments. Eden’s mind may be on escape, but the threats around her are intense.
Another timeline features sociologist, author, and activist Veronica Henley (also Monáe), leaving her idyllic life for a few days to make appearances for a book tour. The hotel she arrives at is oddly amiss for a variety of reasons, and one can’t help but suspect others around her do not have her best interests in mind.
How these two timelines connect provides the central mystery for the film, as it is divided into three distinct acts. Sadly, Antebellum is not able to find the strongest of answers to what is taking place, even if that understanding is designed to directly address the state of racism in America today, let alone an ugly past still represented by flags and statues. Commendable as the intent from directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (credited as Bush + Renz) may be, the story, as it is presented, doesn’t quite reach the level it needs to deliver a punch more potent than a well-composed online rant.
Of course, that’s not the only aspect worthwhile in a film. I suppose one could feel a movie wanting to support black voices has an obligation to work harder and be better, not unlike the stakes set upon POC in reality. A need to elevate to that level can set up an impossible task for those attempting to find their bearings on their first feature. As such, it makes me wonder if seeing success elsewhere should put a more critical eye here? I feel it depends on what you’re looking for, and despite some misgivings, I did find Antebellum to be a wild ride.
From a technical standpoint, Bush + Renz have everything under control, allowing for a surreal experience that is as stylish as it is brutal. An opening tracking shot navigates its way through a plantation, making it clear the audience is going to have to witness a lot of pain and suffering. It would seem gratuitous were it not a reflection of a once common reality. By the time things shift gears to modern reality, it feels as though a deliberate attempt to create an artificial atmosphere was utilized. The look of the film is too thought-out for an audience not to be questioning these surroundings, let alone a hotel equipped with a dismissive front desk and creepy kids roaming the hallways.
Blending these distinct environments is the hook one looks to see happen. While there’s a narrative struggle to have these settings become intertwined in a better manner, certain moments of imagery have their power. Up to a point, Antebellum revels in sun-drenched environments and the use of dusk. Glowing silhouettes serve as just some of the connections one could make to Gone with the Wind. However, by the third act, the use of moonlight and the eventual dawn feel symbolic in a way I wish matched a more convincing story.
To push against our hero, there is an unflinching look at the inhumanity of the various manifestations of evil in this film, as played by Jack Huston, Eric Lange, and especially Jena Malone (whose Joker-like cackling lingers). Putting faces on these villains does what is needed to yet again remind audiences of an undesirable past. It’s not adding anything new in that regard, though this is a questionable time to see a film such as this show such atrocities. At the same time, there was no way to predict the moment America is currently living in before this film went into production.
As a starring vehicle for Monáe, however, the actress shines. In moments of despair, let alone underwritten bits showing public speeches Veronica is supposedly inspiring people with, Monáe finds the right notes to play. And given the nature of horror films, being a “final girl” in a slavery setting means watching a powerful form of justice/vengeance play out as it needs to in regards to her true aggressors.
Elsewhere, a supporting cast provides what is needed, more or less. Malone’s menace may as well carry her into supervillain territory, but that heightened edge works for the film. Huston is all snarls, while Lange’s detestability is seen clearly. These aren’t nuanced performances, though I wouldn’t think adding layers to racist slaveowners would help. The largest missed opportunity may be the role Kiersey Clemons has a new newly arrived slave, whose mistreatment is designed to push on the audience’s tolerance. Meanwhile, Gabourey Sidibe easily slides into the film’s second act as a proud black woman who doubles as welcome comic relief.
Were Antebellum not directly rooted in one of the most horrific aspects of American history, there’s possibly a less complicated film to digest here. Bush + Renz didn’t choose an easy path to go down for their debut feature. At the same time, I admire what they’ve attempted. It doesn’t hurt to see a film so meticulous shot, giving each frame a near painterly feel. There’s also the strong work from Monáe to help anchor the movie. As an exercise in using messaging to deliver a quality social thriller, Antebellum stands on shaky ground. As a nightmarish out-of-body experience, there’s something here compelling enough to watch.