Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Writer: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Producer: Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Foreman, Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz, Lezlie Wills
Stars: Janelle Monae, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, Tongayi Chirisa
Across two timelines connected by an insidious secret, a woman experiences dual lives as a successful contemporary author and as a confederate slave.
To be perfectly honest, the prospect of covering ¡°Antebellum¡± intimidated me. The movie, which traffics in confederate history and themes of prejudice, dropped during a year when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor motivated massive protests. Secessionist monuments and systemic inequality vaulted over COVID-19 to become urgent issues yet again. Cultural turmoil widened America¡¯s racial rift to its deepest divide since the start of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, here I am, a horror film connoisseur who usually covers B-movies with words like ¡°Ouija,¡± ¡°Amityville,¡± or ¡°Mummy¡± in their titles. As a person who also benefits from white male privilege in a country constructed to cater to white males, talking about complex topics like race feels incredibly out of place, doubly so in a forum where such commentary would be sandwiched between discourse on a cursed killer doll movie and some flippant ¡°found footage¡± flick about a haunted asylum.
Then ¡°Antebellum¡± actually came out and its limpness as both a social essay and as a basic suspense yarn let me off the hook. Net response to the movie could best be described with onomatopoeia, specifically whatever word equals the sound made when you push your tongue between your lips and blow.
Fortuitously for me, plenty of well-qualified writers addressed ¡°Antebellum¡± from academic vantages angled toward social content. Just as luckily, the jury delivered a verdict on ¡°Antebellum¡¯s¡± appeal as a mainstream thriller, and they judged it equally guilty of being ineffective on that front too.
Essentially excused to approach ¡°Antebellum¡± solely as generic genre fare, I can tell you it contains a plot so ludicrous, I can¡¯t concoct hyperbole extreme enough to convey just how ridiculous it is. It probably sounded clever in someone¡¯s initial imagination. But how that someone sold talented actors on the idea, and convinced producers to pony up big money to make it, is a mystery more intriguing than anything in the film.
¡°Antebellum¡± hinges on a big reveal. Call it a twist if you prefer. The particular problem here is that every single chip gets pushed all in on this twist before the dealer even flips the flop. This means the movie can only pay off if the twist is successful, which it most assuredly isn¡¯t.
Think of ¡°Planet of the Apes¡± as a common counter-example. The Statue of Liberty shot revealing the planet was Earth all along is one of cinema history¡¯s biggest shocks. Yet even if Charlton Heston and company were marooned anywhere else in time or space, ¡°Planet of the Apes¡± would still be a badass sci-fi adventure.
Similarly, ¡°The Sixth Sense¡± is best remembered for its all-timer twist. But even before the audience was let in on the secret, the film¡¯s supernatural suspense still satisfied.
Conversely, all ¡°Antebellum¡± has is its reveal. Take that out and what¡¯s left over are a lot of self-aggrandizing speeches, a lot of scenes where confederate soldiers dehumanize slaves, and a lot of Janelle Monae triumphantly brandishing torches and hatchets while destruction explodes in slow-motion behind her.
Where does substance hide amidst these heavy-handed theatrics? The full story doesn¡¯t start breaching the womb until 40 minutes into the movie. After more than a half-hour of white men beating, raping, and humiliating black women, we finally meet Veronica, a prominent author and sociologist whose activism has earned her a ¡®rabble-rouser¡¯ label in certain political circles. The Civil War flashbacks appear to belong to nightmares where Veronica lives as a slave named Eden. How do her dual personalities and the two timelines intersect? There lies the supposed secret of ¡°Antebellum.¡±
I¡¯m a big fan of ¡°The Handmaid¡¯s Tale¡± on Hulu and of ¡°The Purge¡± franchise as well. Years ago, my only longstanding gripe with those properties was that their dystopian fantasies felt far-fetched so as to be too far distanced from a feasible reality. Then the fallout from 2016¡¯s election transformed America¡¯s government, reshaped the Supreme Court, and sowed the sort of divisiveness ¡°Antebellum¡± seeks to mine as subject matter. Suddenly, a world where politicians pervert their authoritative grip on reproductive rights or permit thousands of avoidable deaths seemed less like speculative fiction and more like a frightening inevitability.
With that in mind, I might be persuaded to see America¡¯s current diversity problem as so dire, ¡°Antebellum¡¯s¡± scenario could bear fruit in the future. However, I have a hard time envisioning ever having to eat crow on this one.
¡°Antebellum¡¯s¡± big twist is that its slavery scenes aren¡¯t flashbacks. They take place here and now in a secret section of a Civil War reenactment park where kidnap victims are forced to play slaves. White men and women on the other hand, get to play make-believe confederate soldiers and plantation owners. It¡¯s basically baseball fantasy camp, but for racists.
Now, overseeing an afternoon of cotton picking on horseback under a blazing Louisiana sun sounds unappealing for a multitude of reasons. Unfortunately, I have little doubt that America¡¯s most revolting racists would jump at the opportunity to don a sweaty confederate costume if it meant they could liberally whip, assault, even murder people of color.
What I do find absurd is the notion that a redneck amusement park of this magnitude could exist clandestinely, and under the direction of a U.S. senator no less. I mean sure, I can name several senators off the top of my head who would undoubtedly attend. But something this twisted that essentially has the scope of Westworld, except with even more legally problematic logistics and risks, asks for more than mere suspension of disbelief. It requires building a multibillion-dollar rocket out of malfunctioning brainpower and firing that disbelief straight into the sun. So how on Earth can anyone take anything ¡°Antebellum¡± has to say seriously?
Maybe, only maybe, setting ¡°Antebellum¡± in some indeterminate near future might have helped salvage the concept. Instead, putting it on a parallel timeline seems irresponsibly impossible and more trite than topical in light of serious current events. Even with a backdrop switch, the story probably never had a shot at success due to dull characterization. It would be clich¨¦ to call the characters ¡°flat,¡± except flat implies enough depth that they could qualify for two dimensions. Empty evildoers who make better mustache-twirlers than menacing bigots, ¡°Antebellum¡¯s¡± villains don¡¯t even have that much distinction.
The movie¡¯s lone boon is Gabourey Sidibe portraying Veronica¡¯s stereotypically sassy sidekick who provides 95% of the movie¡¯s energy. I want a sequel to ¡°Antebellum.¡± But I want it to be a raunchy rom-com where Sidibe navigates a post-pandemic singles scene with wit, style, and snark. No discount could make Sidibe¡¯s spare scenes worth the price of admission to this movie. But the scene of her critiquing an admiring barfly¡¯s pickup game alone shows she can be fun as Hell. I would love to see more, which is something no one will say about ¡°Antebellum.¡±
Review Score: 45