As a Jew, I had grown tired of Holocaust narratives in film. Can anyone make anything better or more definitive than Schindler’s List? I’d always been dubious until Son Of Saul proved me wrong. So, with a more open mind, I approached Antebellum, the debut feature by directing partners (and partners in life) Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, hoping against hope that it could transcend the tired tropes of a similar genre, the slave narrative. Both subjects often bring with them the noble sufferers, a plaintive symphonic score, and hiss-worthy villains. A little nuance, layered characters, and a storyline not bottled in formaldehyde seem like welcome elements at this point. Luckily, Antebellum has an original approach and a fierce lead performance to overcome some otherwise tragic flaws.
Opening with Williams Faulkner’s quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” clues us into the reckoning on slavery about to unfold. As a country, we still have yet to truly face and come to terms with its repercussions. The last four years alone spell that out pretty succinctly, with those who deny the existence of systemic racism, with those who kill unarmed Black men and women, and with those who think there were “very fine people” spouting racist and Nazi rhetoric in Charlottesville.
Faulkner’s quote resonates throughout the film, which opens on a beautiful slow motion steadicam shot as it wends its way through a slave owner’s plantation setting. The striking score by Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder may have symphonic elements, but it also includes a percussive drive and enough ominous notes to keep you intrigued. We follow a little white girl for a bit as she strolls happily through the grounds until we run into regimented Confederate troops. A quick glance at a distraught woman named Eden (queer icon, Janelle Monáe) takes us right to a male slave being yoked away as a female slave begs for his life after a failed escape attempt.
From here, we spend the next 40 minutes steeped in the atrocities of the pre- and post-Civil War south, all seen from Eden’s point of view. Monáe has impressed me in supporting roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, and does so again in this, her first feature lead performance. I feel like her stunning features cause her to work a little harder than other actors to prove she has the goods, and sometimes I’ve noticed that work. Here, she seems assured and gets nice visual character moments to prove her smarts, such as when she creatively figures out how to move around in her cabin without creaking the floor boards. Unfortunately, the filmmakers surround her with a gallery of one dimensional characters, including the mustache-twirling, abusive, sadistic Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), the mustache-twirling abusive, sadistic unnamed officer (Eric Lange), the genteel, but sadistic southern belle (Jena Malone), and, you get the point. Although they offer some wonderfully fragile moments, both Kiersey Clemons and Tongayi Chirisa have barely sketched out slave characters. Clemons, however, has a terrific speech when she challenges Monáe on the perils of waiting and remaining silent as the horrors of their situation amass. The filmmakers, to their credit, also sprinkle in some strange details throughout this section to keep you off-balance.
I don’t want to spoil anything more. I didn’t watch the trailer beforehand and I recommend going in as cold as possible. Suffice it to say, the filmmakers strive to disorient the audience. This includes new characters, chief among them the scene-stealingly hilarious Gabourey Sidibe as a woman who has never faced a micro-aggression she couldn’t extinguish. In this section, Monáe and Sidibe serve as strong counterpoints to the “noble suffering” of the previously established characters, forcing us to consider the squelched lives of an entire race of humans. Over the course of history, we have lost so many lives to slavery, the Holocaust, opposition to an authoritarian government, AIDS and more. This film drives home the point that we have missed out on so much potential.
Antebellum, however, takes this promise and pours it into a superhero origin story of sorts. In its last act, we witness the birth of a warrior and the over-the-top craziness of our chief villain. On the surface, this provides us with a rousing finish, but it also waters down the messaging slightly. They have placed a story with historic purpose into the horror/action thriller genre. It will likely excite people and lead to some provocative discussions afterwards. After people saw The Sixth Sense, they wanted to see it again to see what they missed. It was all about that twist. With Antebellum, the twists only serve to deepen our feelings about this stain on history. I applaud the filmmakers desire to swing for the fences. It’s clear they wanted to keep things moving. This film has great energy, but, for me, I felt it was too short and somewhat skimpy. It could have used some grace notes, allowing us to understand all of its characters a little bit better. Instead of ending on its twist, it could have spent some time allowing us to witness the repercussions of the trauma faced by its people. Next time at bat, I hope they take a little more time with their characters. They have the visual smarts and great ideas, enough to get this film to almost the levels of Get Out and Us. For such rebellious spirits, I fear they’ve slipped into nobility too fast. Shake it off, loosen up, and wow us next time!
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Antebellum, originally slated for an April 24th theatrical release, can be streamed starting Friday September 18th wherever you buy or rent movies.