Written and Directed by: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Starring: Janelle MonŠe, Eric Lange, and Jena Malone
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If it chooses you, nothing can save you.
Antebellum opens with Faulknerís famous insistence that ďthe past is never deadóitís not even past,Ē an observation thatís only grown to be more apt (if not downright prophetic) in recent years, as American continues to grapple with its original sin of slavery. The Foundersí decision to accommodate the slave trade instantly wove division and discord into the fabric of a nation that would forever fray at the seams. America forever dwells on this fault line, which continues to reverberate and echo into the present, haunting a class of its residents oppressed by state-sanctioned violence and the institutionalized racism perpetuated by fellow citizens, particularly the class of folks who insist Black people should ďget over slaveryĒ as they clutch to their own Confederate merchandise and memorials. Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz explore this lingering specter in Antebellum in an admirable but ultimately misguided attempt at tracing the unmistakable line between past and present. While itís thoughtful in approach, it obfuscates its own messaging with gimmicky storytelling that feels designed to shock the audience with its own cleverness instead of unnerving it with its inherently horrific material.
The duoís script weaves a dual narrative, one that finds Eden (Janelle MonŠe) terrorized on a southern plantation alongside scores of other slaves. As the Civil War rumbles in the distance, its thundering cannons reminding these slaves of the war being waged to own their bodies, they toil away under the tyrannical eye of overseers and plantation owners who have their way with their ďpropertyĒ in every sense of the word. Escape is a possibility, albeit a harrowing one, and Eden bides her time between various assaults and demeaning ordeals. In the present day, her story analogue Veronica (also MonŠe) enjoys a much more successful life as a prominent author. However, because she dares to write about her experiences as a Black woman, she endures microaggressions and outright disrespect that manifests itself in a chilling ordeal when an enigmatic southern belleís (Jena Malone) admiration proves to be a harbinger for a sinister plot. Past and present collide as the audience come to realize just how literally the film takes Faulknerís quote.
Thereís a weird playfulness to Antebellum that undermines its brutal subject matter. Bush and Renz frame it as a mystery, flitting between past and present to give the impression that supernatural might be intertwining the two plot threads. Otavia Butlerís Kindred casts a long shadow over the film, perhaps unfairly hinting that time travel may be involved. The film itself provides other suggestions, including the possibility of a literal haunting, as it keeps the audience guessing at the connection between its dual lead characters. Without going into details, letís just say it settles on the most obvious and least interesting choice with a plot twist that deflates whatís left of the movie.
I donít want to imply that Iím knocking Antebellum for what it isnít; however, when a film itself dangles more tantalizing possibilities, I donít think itís out of bounds to feel let down when it opts for something mundane instead of exploring the more imaginative stuff it teases, especially when its red herrings rely on the cheapest of tricks. Antebellum gets one over on the audience but it does so in such an empty fashion, with a twist that exists for the sake of having a twist. Nothing about the story dictates it should even have the twist: it could be told conventionally, and youíd only lose the ďshockĒ of the reveal that comes about midway through the picture.
Maybe thereís something to be said about the stark, banal reality Antebellum eventually settles on, though. Its insistence that the past and present remain intertwined because of the horrors of men rather than supernatural maleficence is a crucial choice that reminds us of the depravity that still dwells among us. Our ghosts are perpetuated by the hate that lurks in the hearts of men whose preoccupation with the past stains the present. Make no mistake: what Antebellum has to say needs to be heard, and it has no problem shouting it for the folks sitting in the back. I just wish it had found a more graceful way to weave its various threads. This feels like a clumsy rough draft that has a clear thesis but tries too hard to impressóitís a case of a film that feels like itís trying too hard yet somehow underwhelms anyway.
One could overlook its insistence on narrative trickery if Antebellum had any substance. However, itís ultimately laid quite bare that Bush and Renz mostly interested in sheer shock and brutality as they draw parallels between past and present. Violence is the throughline here, as the duo mercilessly subjects Black bodies to physical and psychological torment. And while the unflinching nature of the violence is a matter of historical fact, the savagery feels exploitative because Antebellum rarely dwells on its Black characters when they arenít being subjected to violence. The film particularly defines Eden by the assaults she endures, affording little chance for interiority or character development. In a galling turn of events, we learn the initials of her slaver when he brands her skin before we ever learn her name. Fellow slaves Julia and Him (Kiresey Clemmons and Eric Lange) are similarly disposable, their bodies existing only as another canvas for Bush and Renz to project Black anguish.
Veronica only fares slightly better: her depiction rounds out the depth a bit, but she also begins to feel like a piece the directors are maneuvering on a chess board. We know sheís successful because the camera gazes on the lavish fruits of her laboróher lavish home and posh hotel roomóbut the lens has little interest in the woman behind all of this. MonŠeís natural magnetism can only do so much, and I shudder to think how much emptier this movie would be without the fiery conviction she brings to both roles. If Antebellum works at allóand its climactic sequence is somewhat stirringóitís because MonŠe brings gravitas to an otherwise ludicrous production thatís populated by caricatures and cliches. Antebellum is a film whose tricky storytelling takes precedence over character development: you never quite feel like itís about anything substantial, no matter how much it insists otherwise with its bravura camerawork and audacious storytelling gambits.
This is a classic case of a film with a crucial message in need of better articulation: itíd be one thing if it were a wild, angry howl, but even that doesnít quite capture whatís going on here. If anything, something about Antebellum almost feels too measured and calculated in its subterfuge, almost as if itís carefully concealing the trick up its sleeve before anyone realizes it doesnít have anything in its other hand. Once it reveals its trick, the illusion that Antebellum has anything novel or insightful to say is shattered. Another phrase that Faulkner once echoed proves to be more apt: this is a movie full of sound of fury, signifying nothing.
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