If you have not already seen the trailer for Antebellum, do yourself a favor and avoid it all costs before watching the film. While many trailers are guilty of revealing too much of the story, this one undercuts the drama of the film and the storytelling device it contains.
To be fair, I understand the dilemma of the Lionsgate marketing department. Because of the way writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz structured their film, it’s virtually impossible to talk about it without giving some part of the plot away. The film stars Janelle Monáe, who for much of the film plays Eden, a slave on a cotton plantation during what appears to be the middle of the Civil War.
But for a portion of the film, she also plays Veronica, a modern-day academic who’s well-respected enough to speak on racial issues on cable news. How the two relate and intersect is the crux of the plot, one which I won’t divulge here. But suffice it to say that the cruel way Black people have been treated by white people over the centuries is at the center of both stories.
The film is labeled as a horror/thriller, and there can be nothing more horrific than watching slaves being dehumanized, which is how Bush and Renz spend the first third of the film. Eden and her fellow slaves seem to have vague ideas on how to escape their current situation, but, as an early scene shows, acting on them can have grave consequences.
The shift to the modern day demonstrates how far Black people have come, but also how they are still subject to countless acts of racism, whether overt or subtle. Veronica must endure acts of aggression toward her on a variety of fronts, and it’s only through her strength of will that she manages not to snap at every injustice that comes her way.
Bush, Renz, and their team do a great job of setting up the film’s conclusion, which makes sense of the somewhat confusing nature of the film’s first two-thirds. Whether that ending is as profound as they seem to want it to be is another story. On a visceral level, the film is compelling, with protagonists rising up against oppressors a tried-and-true winner. But the more the message is examined, the more it falls apart, with it coming across as virtue signaling rather than a deep exploration of racial issues.
Regardless of the lasting effectiveness of the story, Monáe carries the film. From Moonlight to Hidden Figures to Harriet, she has been as magnetic an actor as a she is a singer, and a go-to for anyone telling worthy Black stories. Other stand-outs include Gabourey Sidibe, who breaks out from being a TV-only actor in recent years to deliver a scene-stealing performance; and Jena Malone, who makes the most of what could’ve been a one-note villain role.
Taken as a thriller alone, Antebellum can be enjoyed on a surface level. But its message is intertwined with the story as a whole, and in that respect, it doesn’t live up to its potential.
Antebellum is available via VOD options like Apple TV, VUDU, GooglePlay, and Fandango Now.