As the acclaimed poet/savvy businessman Jay-Z once famously said “we’ve moved past kneeling” about NFL player protests, I’d love for someone in Hollywood to make a declaration about slave movies. I think I’m pretty well past getting any measure of enjoyment/entertainment out of watching black men and women getting whipped, brutalized and treated like less than on screen so filmmakers can show how “far” America has come.
At last Antebellum has the right idea in making its slavery tale a horror movie. But does that make for a good movie?
That depends on your tolerance level for the standard slave movie with all the usual checklist of cliches watching Eden (Janelle Monáe), Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) and Julia (Kiersey Clemons) deal with the expected crap from slave masters (Jack Huston and Jena Malone).
The Civil War winner runner-ups harass their slaves in all ways you can easily imagine if you’ve seen one or two slave movies. It’s one of those deals where directors/writers Gerard Bush (Courage) and Christopher Renz (Kill Jay-Z) have an interesting premise, but they’ve got no real sense of how to tell this story.
This lack of pacing really hurts as Bush and Renz waste 40 minutes before unveiling what makes Antebellum unique.
Veronica Henley (Monae) is a successful author dealing with modern era racism and trying to do her part to fight the systemic oppression of black people in America. She’s happily married to a loving husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and has a sweet daughter Kennedi (London Boyce). While she’s off doing promotional speaking engagements for her latest book, Veronica starts encountering familiar faces from Eden’s world.
Bush and Renz’s script plays out like they really think they’re saying something revelatory about their analogies of slavery and the modern era. The problem is their dialogue is hokey with characters speaking like campaign slogans. One of the worst and most eye-rolling instances is when Veronica insists that the atrocities of racism are nearing their end point. What year is Veronica in again?
This is the kind of premise that Jordan Peele would have turned into another masterpiece thanks to his knack for storytelling especially once the big twist is revealed. Bush and Renz have big statements they want to make, but they’re more preoccupied with relieving slavery movies’ greatest hits instead of playing up the actual horror element in Antebellum.
What’s wild is it’s not hard to see the easy ways the script could have been improved to make this a credible horror film instead of a me too slave movie.
They fare better on the directorial side. There’s some impressive shots where confederate soldiers are marching with torches like their Charlottesville descendants and a slave hangs herself while her ankle tattoo is visible. Eden walking around her master’s quarters is shot like a dangerous dance.
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Monáe has such a magnetic presence that it’s frustrating watching her in the slavery setting. She’s vivacious and completely commands the screen. The film is drastically improved in the modern setting where Veronica can live with confidence, dismiss the basic casual racism and kick it with her girls (Lily Cowles and a scene-stealing Gabourey Sidibe).
In hindsight, Bush and Renz should have balanced the slave/modern settings more if for no other reason than to have more enjoyment with Monae, Cowles and Sidibe. And the other matter of actually explaining and making more sense of the film’s payoff.
The film gets weird as it hits the hour point as the timelines merge, but it’s more frustrating than a captivating mystery. I’ve got more specific gripes that spoil too much, but the final act is a series of frustrating decisions and choices. At best it’s laughable with the overuse of slow-motion and just a wash with so many wasted opportunities.
Antebellum had potential, but the filmmakers trip over their metaphors and completely fail to deliver on the premise. Get Jordan Peele to do a substantial rewrite and this could have been one of the better films of 2020. As is, it’s not worth the effort to watch or of anyone involved in making it.
Rating: 1 out of 10
Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate Publicity