THE STORY – A successful author finds herself in a horrifying reality and must figure out the mystery behind it before it is too late.
THE CAST – Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons & Gabourey Sidibe
THE TEAM – Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
By Kaiya Sunyata
When the first teaser trailer for “Antebellum” was released at the beginning of 2020, the film looked like it would be a stunning sci-fi horror film about time travel. There were shots of Janelle Monáe in modern times juxtaposed with shots of her also at a plantation. It also featured shots of an airplane overhead the plantation glitching like it was part of a simulation. All these things led cinephiles and even regular theatergoers to believe this film would feature time travel in some way, or perhaps fold out to have an Inception-like plot (dreams within dreams, lives within lives). This original concept that the film’s teaser trailer proposed, is more intriguing than the bleak and downright tragic film that we are actually presented with.
“Antebellum” begins with a stunning tracking shot: the beating sun gleaming over tall green grass. But, it is matched with eeriness. Everything is silent, as the camera pans and we follow two Confederate soldiers and a Black woman who is slung over the side of a horse. As we follow this, it becomes evident that what is occurring is a failed attempt at an escape and then it is revealed that we’re at a plantation. The camera idles passively, as we then see another Black woman and man running from a separate group of soldiers. As the man is captured, the woman continues to run with pain and anguish marrying her face. She is then captured and dragged back with a noose around her neck – until she is killed. This is all the film has to offer: stunning cinematography that tries (and fails) to distract the viewer from the relentless Black trauma and pain its narrative is guilty of.
The film focuses on Eden/Veronica (Janelle Monáe) a woman we follow at the plantation for over the first quarter of the film’s runtime. There is almost no narrative to her story and it feels like she only serves as a vessel to prove how evil the Confederate soldiers in the film are. She goes through the unspeakable – for arranging an escape plan – Monáe struggles to deliver even the simplest of fraught dialogue. The most intriguing part of Eden’s story is not even Eden herself, but Julia (a fantastic and harrowing Kiersey Clemons), a woman she meets on the plantation who pushes for the freedom Eden herself once sought. Finally, on a night after she is assaulted by the general, a cell phone can be heard and Eden’s life transitions into Veronica’s.
Veronica’s life is different from Eden’s in every way: she lives in the present and finds success as a renowned sociologist and author. While the film leads you to believe Veronica’s story is where storylines will join together and add some clarity to her relation to Eden, the film offers nothing other than a glimpse into the life of a “modern-day woman” filled with embarrassing dialogue and an equally embarrassing “The Shining” nod – which is the only scene in the film that semblances a standard horror film. On an outing with friends one night during her book tour, Veronica is kidnapped by a frightening woman with a southern drawl similar to a voice that can be heard briefly in the life Eden lives on the plantation. There are answers eventually given to their connection, but the succession of the film’s editing makes these answers incomprehensible in the end.
“Antebellum” feels like a film belonging to a different decade. While it attempts a Black Mirror-like “gotcha!” towards its climax, it is not earned at all. If your film subjugates your Black characters and your Black viewers to nothing but trauma for the better part of your film’s two-hour runtime, there is no plot twist that can salvage the pain you caused. The film is brutal in its ingenuity and disregard for Black humanity and healing, and while it may not be the sci-fi horror that was seemingly promised, it’s definitely a horror film to Black viewers. In the age of films like “Get Out,” this try at a horror film unraveling into a story of race and allegory just does not work. What was once an anticipated film for Black cinephiles dwindles into a disheartening display of two men exercising an idea that needed to be completely reworked. To release this film in the world we currently inhabit: one filled with unrest and constant trauma is unwise and frankly, disrespectful. By the end of the film, “Antebellum” doesn’t leave anything to be desired, other than for this horrifying trauma-fest’s credits to roll.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Stellar cinematography that utilizes lighting and shadows beautifully, accompanied by a harrowing (albeit brief) performance by Kiersey Clemons.
THE BAD – The film’s blatant disregard for the triggering violence it wreaks on its Black characters and viewers, mixed with a plot twist that echoes a shelved Black Mirror episode.