Director: Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz
Starring: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe
Run Time: 106 mins
Antebellum is the feature debut from directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Although marketed as a horror, this is more of a mystery thriller in which a woman who has been renamed Eden (Janelle Monáe) finds herself on a brutal slave plantation run by Confederate soldiers in seemingly Civil War-era America. The slaves are treated particularly despicably and are not allowed to speak. About forty minutes in, Eden wakes up in the present day as Dr. Veronica Henley who has a loving family and is a renowned sociologist. Parallels are drawn between the two storylines and Bush and Renz pose the question of what connects these two stories.
Positioned as a female-centered nervous mix of The Twilight Zone and 12 Years A Slave with more than a heavy dose of M. Night Shyamalan infused in the mix, Antebellum is a fierce debut and is a brave narrative to tackle. The plantation sequences are particularly uncomfortable to watch and the slave owners are some of the most sadistic to be witnessed in the genre. There is a satisfying twist that reframes earlier scenes in the film, which warrants a rewatch to further unpack.
Janelle Monáe is admirable in what is her first leading role, after impressing in films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures in a supporting capacity. She perfectly captures the plight of a slave, predominantly having to communicate with her fellow prisoners via her facial expressions, as he calculatedly plots her next move. Eden has quietly learned her away around the plantation, for example knowing which floorboards creak in her owner’s lodge, so that she may one day plot an escape.
Technically, Antebellum is impressive with Pedro Luque beautifully capturing the plantation. The film opens up on an uncomfortably long tracking shot introducing the plantation and the cotton-pickers exhaustedly working in the lush fields and the horrifying killing of a worker. The plantation sequences are brightly lit invoking that the slaves have nowhere to hide. The string-based score by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur is terrific, further ratcheting up the tension with its uncomfortable riffs and suitably grand in the spurts of action .
The film runs into problems in its second act in its present day setting. It isn’t as engaging as the first and third acts and it’s clear that Renz and Bush aren’t in their element. The messages that Veronica conveys are quite Gabourey Sidibe’s character, Dawn, who is a friend of Veronica’s is particularly problematic. It is not clear whether the filmmakers are attempting to portray her as a strong independent force or just plain rude. I found her to be the former and she is a real thorn for the film, despite Sidibe having a strong filmography. It would also be fair to say that some of the characters, even the slave owners are rather one-dimensional.
Antebellum is a really interesting debut and I’m very glad it exists, particularly in the context of a ‘Make America Great Again’ society. The first and third acts are particularly riveting even if the film sags in the middle. It’s a shame that the reception to this film has been fairly negative, with many finding the film to be exploitative, its twist not justifying the brutal violence and that its violence is torture porn. I would strongly disagree and would argue that the sadistic violence assists in creating a stronger verisimilitude. It also doesn’t help that the film has been marketed as a horror when it is somewhat light on horror elements and films such as It Comes At Night and mother! have been similarly rejected for misleading marketing. I can’t wait to see what Bush and Renz go onto make next and hope that they continue to take risks and are not deterred from the negative critical response.