I remember the trailer for Antebellum dropping and being so captivated by the premise. The film seemed like it would be a terrifying Tilt-A-Whirl oscillating between past and present, making connections between the different ways racism has evolved in American history. Rather, the finished product without the glossy marketing is a disappointing film that can’t overcome the shortcomings of its script.
Antebellum opens on a silent tour of a plantation. In this scene, the camera following confederate soldiers as they march through the grounds. It is a visually striking segment, and director of photography Pedro Luque captures each image in a painterly way. However, the beauty starts and stops with Luque’s cinematography. We see the brutalization of three slaves in the first ten minutes, which establishes the cruelty of white southern plantation owners. But since it could easily explain this cruelty in three minutes, this section instead feels tiresome and not insightful.
Due to this extended opening segment, it feels like the movie doesn’t really begin until 40 minutes in, when Eden (Janelle Monáe) wakes up as sociologist Veronica Henley. It is ages before we actually connect with a single character, and even longer to reach the present day that the trailers promised. Dividing the film into strict thirds (first past, then present, then the finale that mixes the two) feels too rigid for a film that is about time. A different structure would have worked wonders in adding tension to the film.
On top of that, writers/directors Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz depict the characters like cardboard cutouts or puppets in a play. There are some truly baffling moments, like when Julia (Kiersey Clemons) tells confederate soldier Daniel (Robert Aramayo) that he “isn’t like the others” after he calls her good looking. Surely a pregnant slave would recognize the surface compliment for the dehumanizing remark that it really is. What follows is yet another brutal sequence of violence devoid of any insight. When the writing is not baffling like this instance, the rest feels so rote and so utterly predictable. Not even Monáe’s stellar performance could save a script like this.
Without getting into specifics, the ending feels obvious, much like everything else in the story. The script’s lack of depth is truly the downfall of what would have otherwise been a decent thriller. With a different edit and a better script, Antebellum could have been a great film. However, we cannot turn back the hands of time, and the finished product remains bland even with its strong performances and visuals. – Audrey Griffin
Antebellum is now available on various VOD platforms.
The film stars Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, and Kiersey Clemons.