"I'm as much a Confederate as any man here."
Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz likely expected their film, the Janelle Monáe starrer Antebellum, to strike up some controversy and potentially begin a discussion surrounding its centric Civil War storyline and blunt depiction of slavery and racism.
That was before the pandemic.
Now, amid an entirely new cultural climate, Antebellum can add dialogue to the conversation. The film showcases a strong, successful Black woman, acutely aware of the country's history, thrown into a nightmarish horror. She wakes to find herself thrown over a saddle on a Southern slave plantation known for rehabilitation. Disoriented and perplexed, she attempts to understand her surroundings, which she immediately sees is neither kind nor humane.
The film takes its time setting the stage, dialing in on Monáe's Eden as she adjusts to life under her new owner. The scenery is undeniably graceful, countering the story's brutality in a perceived intentional move that gives the film a stark, uncanny aesthetic. From the initial notes of the opening score, the music is impactful, capturing your attention as you witness the horrors unfold before your eyes. Much like Eden, you find yourself in a state of shock, working to process everything all at once, a feat that is near impossible given the scene's many moving parts.
As we continue to progress with the film's central narrative, it becomes increasingly clear that though Bush and Renz have a tight grip on their large scale concept, how to get their characters from introduction to final scene is less known. Many of the supporting cast are painfully underutilized. Forced to serve as uninteresting placeholders, many receive ample screen time, but the result of their presence is hardly worth the mention. The directors are continually playing catchup, often finding themselves lost within their attempt to create a thriller style environment for a slow-burn social study type film.
Outside of Monáe's brilliant work, Jena Malone is the film's driving force. Her performance as Elizabeth, a leading woman on the plantation, is equally intense and cryptic. Malone has a way of demanding your attention, even when her character doesn't warrant it. She brings a sense of control to the film while playing up the perceived stereotypes necessary to drive home the underlying expose on racial relations, both past and present.
Speaking of the present, a ringing phone is what unexpectedly transports us to modern times. Here we meet Monáe's Eden (now Dr. Veronica Henley), her family, and a pair of close friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles) with whom she meets up with for dinner after presenting at a work conference. Though the time and place are altered, bringing with it an undeniable change in personality, the underlying message remains consistent - to a fault.
The tonal shift, ideally meant to be noticeable but slight, proves overwhelming. Bush and Renz spend too much energy showcasing how extreme the two environments are, forgetting to give their central character a pulse. The move forces Monáe to craft something out of nothing and give her character a purpose amidst the surrounding chaos. The film works to resell itself as a horror piece, interjecting unmotivated pause and mystery into the telling, further proving that no one fully understands what Antebellum is working to accomplish.
The twist, a painful throwback to 2004, cements the film as a disoriented attempt to repurpose a concept with only a slight "cultural" adjustment. Strong cinematography helps to some degree, but there isn't much that warrants excitement. I wanted to love Antebellum, and I did like certain aspects. But the film fails to materialize into what it could (and should) have been. It isn't terrible and will likely still serve as a conversation piece amidst certain circles, but its lasting effect will be undoubtedly limited.
*This film is currently available via On-Demand platforms.