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Review: ‘Antebellum’ wastes an intriguing premise by focusing on all the wrong things

Clearly inspired by recent horror-thrillers stuffed with social commentary, “Antebellum” falls short of joining their elite company. (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

In 2017, Jordan Peele released “Get Out” and forever changed the horror genre, introducing a psychological thriller whose social commentary was just as terrifying as the actual scares on screen. “Get Out” was tactful in its approach, using great care to establish rich characters, squirm-inducing anxiety and a truly mind-boggling twist, all while cutting to the core of the Black experience in America.

Now, three years later, one of the production companies behind the masterpiece is still riding the success of the film, marketing the studio’s new horror-thriller “Antebellum” as coming from the producer of “Get Out” and “Us,” Peele’s second film. That may be true, seeing that QC Entertainment was involved in both projects, but the way “Antebellum” is being presented feels dishonest, like they’re trying to pass it off as one of Peele’s own brainchildren, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Antebellum” tries its hardest to deliver the same suspense and allegorical socio-political message that Peele’s films do, but the ham-fisted result pales in comparison. Instead, it’s a shallow and blunt film that trades in nuance for pain and brutality.

Janelle Monáe as Veronica/Eden in “Antebellum.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Antebellum” begins in just that – on a plantation in the Antebellum South during the time of the Civil War. Run by an evil southern belle caricature named Elizabeth (Jena Malone) and a nameless General (Eric Lange), the plantation is filled with as many Confederate soldiers as slaves. When things open, a group of slaves led by Eden (Janelle Monáe) has just been caught attempting to escape. During the attempt, one woman was killed by slavers, another man trapped and sent to be tortured, but for Eden it’s back to the cotton field where she begins to plot her next bid for freedom. When a new slave named Julia (Kiersey Clemons) arrives on the plantation, though, it’s clear something here is out of the ordinary – other than just the atrocity of slavery. The way the two speak to each other is far too modern to blend in with the 1860s backdrop, and so the seeds of doubt are planted.

Then, suddenly, we’re introduced to a whole new version of Monáe, this time one thriving in the present day as Veronica Henley, an acclaimed author, wife and mother. Long gone is the plantation and its horrors. This version of Veronica is living her best life, fighting for civil rights and social justice, flanked by her two best friends, Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles).

Could this new version of Veronica be living in an alternate reality? Is time travel involved? The trailer for “Antebellum” drew comparisons to “Kindred,” Octavia Butler’s 1979 time travel/slave-narrative novel, and it’s clear there’s also a twist looming here. While the surprise may not be nearly as inspired as what goes down in Butler’s groundbreaking novel, it’s still better left unspoiled.

Eric Lange as the General in “Antebellum.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

In “Get Out,” and all the best allegorical films, directors trust their audiences to be able to comprehend their hidden messages. Peele never needed to explicitly state that his characters were carrying out a form of modern-day slavery, it was just known. Here, though, writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz spell it out for viewers with a horrific emphasis on Veronica and the other slaves’ suffering on the plantation. Whether it’s through torture, murder or a startling amount of rape scenes, the fixation on pain and suffering is gratuitous and serves as the only focus of the film’s first act. Rather than fleshing out the characters of Veronica, Julia or the other slaves – allowing the audience to learn who they are, how long they’ve been trapped, and other defining characteristics – it’s simply another beating or sequence of verbal abuse.

In the modern setting during the film’s second act, “Antebellum” does a better job depicting who Veronica truly is by showing her passions for her family and work. Sidibe shines as her outspoken and unapologetic sidekick who unabashedly calls out every day microaggressions and provides a bit of much-needed lightheartedness. Still, though, the actions of the second act feel hollow, seemingly only serving as a way to establish a new setting and pass the time until the final twist ultimately comes into play.

Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn, Janelle Monae as Veronica and Lily Cowles as Sarah in “Antebellum.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Speaking of that third-act twist… It’s not nearly as groundbreaking as Bush and Renz would like to think it is. Moviegoers who have any sort of experience watching mysteries or thrillers will likely be able to put the pieces together long before the reveal, because again, subtlety isn’t this film’s strong suit. It certainly makes for a good time unraveling the mystery as clues are discovered, but when the most obvious clues are given before the halfway point, the remaining portion results in a fairly unsatisfying payoff.

While “Antebellum” may struggle when it comes to the way it approaches its subject matter, technically speaking it’s an impressive film. Cinematographer Pedro Luque begins the film with a minutes-long oner that winds its way through the plantation, and the rest of the camerawork that follows is equally impressive. The score from Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder is effectively spine-tingling and sets the eeriness in motion straight from the start.

The ever-talented Monáe turns in impressive and emotional dual performances as both the modern-day and 19th-century versions of Veronica, despite the latter restricting her to minimal actual character development.

Ultimately, though, “Antebellum” is a swing and a miss. Heavily influenced by the recent slate of horror-thrillers that have tackled racism and the Black experience, “Antebellum” tries to deliver an equally ambitious and moving entry, and while the intriguing premise is there, the sloppy execution results in disappointment.

Star Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“Antebellum” is available to rent on paid VOD platforms beginning September 18, 2020.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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