2020 | R | starring Janelle Monae, Jena Malone, Gabourey Sidibe | written & directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz | 1 hr 45 mins |
Lead by a trailer that boasted a mysterious and impossible premise, Antebellum teases another attempt to grab the noir horror brass ring that Jordan Peele made so popular with Get Out and Us. It has the same attempt to discombobulate us that Get Out so successfully did, but without Jordan Peele’s involvement and all of the style, wit and love of genre that goes with it. Instead it feels more like a (admittedly) visually stylish high-concept idea backing up to look for a story to support it. Music video directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz aim at Peele for their freshman film and end up producing something M. Night Shyamalan would bang out in his schlockiest days. I distinctly remember sitting in a theater watching Shyamalan’s The Village, guessing the twist in the first 2 minutes and discarding it thinking that it was too dumb and no big studio movie would let that slip through. Antebellum offers that all over again.
We open on a civil war era plantation in the Antebellum south where Eden (Janelle Monae, Moonlight) and several other slaves pick cotton and suffer under the cruel hands of the plantation owners. When a new arrival Julie (Kiersey Clemons) shows up, and confides to Eden that is pregnant, she shakes Eden up to plot an escape plan. Meanwhile, Veronica (also Janelle Monae) is a published author and media pundit in modern day Washington (I think) with a daughter, loving husband and obnoxious movie friend (Gabourey Sibide).
While Bush and Renz ultimately go for an ending that is almost laughably dumb, Antebellum has red hearings abound to more interesting ideas. It constantly talks about the past and time and shared trauma flowing through generations. It hints at time travel or genetic consciousness or something sci fi or supernatural blending past and present together. All of that would require filmmakers with an interest in genre filmmaking and the curiosity and cleverness to role a movie that plucked our uncomfortable horror nerves into a socially conscious modern parable. Bush and Renz just want to lecture us. They want to tell us that nothing in American society has changed racially and have our heroine literally lecture us about the oppression of the patriarchy, but then get her out of a jam with 21st century inventions made by white men. It’s the same problem all of these lecture movies have, where the needs of a story and the needs of the message conflict.
In another bit of the movie’s clueless irony, is how it draws the slave owners. While it becomes a function of the plot that all of their actions feel false or themselves inspired by movies, the movie doesn’t seem to recognize or note that. It’s always struck me as ringing false and over-the-top how some movies (like Harriet) depict the southern slaveowner – overly cruel, bullying, sadistic, angry, fearful and jealous, hissing and spitting – when every historical account shows that they viewed slaves more like property. That reality comes with it’s own set of horrors that don’t need to be juiced up with theatricality, but movies can rarely help themselves to turn them into bullies and sadists to lay the villainy on thick. Antebellum is the first movie where that bullying fearful behavior actually fits the characters and the movie doesn’t seem aware of this opportunity. This could have been a comment on “modern day slavery”, it could have been a meta-commentary on how movies depict the time period, it could have been a lot of things if it really dug into the material. The more southern antebellum movies I see, the more it seems like Django Unchained really nailed it all around. That’s a movie that shows the cruelty of plantation life (that this one feels to tip toe around) while depicting Leonardo DiCaprio’s villainous plantation owner as a businessman first and foremost, trading his property as business transactions, without a cartoonishly vitriolic fear of them.
I know it might seem insane to critique the movie for depicting slaveholders as too mean, but it’s more a request for historic accuracy and trusting the nature of the material. If your villains aren’t believable than your hero can’t be heroic. If you’re going to have your main character ride out in a cheesy slow motion hero shot, the villains need to be more than bumbling fools. It’s why none of the thriller or horror beats here work. When Jenna Malone camps it up in a bad southern accent and stalks around Veronica’s apartment it’s more cheesy than tense. When Gabourey Sibide chews up the scenery with the same obnoxiously over-confident friend role she’s played in American Horror Story it doesn’t feel like someone Veronica would hang out with without a very compelling backstory.
Where Bush and Renz excel is the visuals. It opens with a long showy tracking shot through the plantation and is full of gorgeous cinematography and interesting shots. One overhead in a fire shack, one between a wall as Julie and Eden argue. The cinematography here is top shelf and the best reason to see Antebellum.
The structure of the film is interesting, starting in the past, dropping us into the future and slowly dropping clues to what’s going on until the unceremonious and anti-climactic reveal. The mind spins to think of how many different ways this movie could have been rearranged to maximize the surprise of the twist. What information to hold out and what information to distract to keep people hanging on the mystery. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie that was built so fundamentally around a twist that it then cared so little about actually surprising us with that twist.