There is, at first brush, quite a bit to love about Antebellum. The debut feature from the music video directing team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who also co-wrote the script, offers an abundance of technical ability that is, in and of itself, quite impressive. Music videos being largely an endeavor of style, the duo have certainly developed a keen eye for what makes a captivating and intriguing image.
Antebellum is filled with evocative imagery and shots that resonate. So, too, do they get a fantastic performance from Janelle Monáe, who appears in her first leading role. Appearing in every scene of the movie, Monáe carries not only the weight of the film but also the weight of the history the film is exploring. She is a powerful draw, and every moment of her performance is positively captivating.
This is more than apparent in the film’s brilliant opening moments, an eight-minute-long tracking shot that is, unquestionably, one of the best opening scenes I’ve seen in years. It is as unflinching a depiction of slavery as has ever been film and immediately sets a standard that, unfortunately, the rest of the film cannot live up to.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t try. Bush and Renz clearly have an idea for what they’re trying to say. The problem is that they don’t seem to know exactly how to say it. The result is a film that, while absolutely filled with great moments, performances, and scenes, never quite gels together in a way that will make it impactful.
Working as a sort of riff on Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Antebellum has Monáe pulling double duty as both a slave named Eden and the modern writer Veronica Henley. Their lives are explored in parallel, with the connections between the two women kept secret until act three. In this way, Antebellum tries to explore the systemic connections between slavery and modern social justice movements.
Unfortunately, that’s all I can really tell you without giving away the whole point of the movie. This is immensely frustrating because it’s within that connection that the film begins to fall apart. Suffice it to say, there is a twist, though one that’s forecasted a mile away, that threatens the internal logic of the film and detracts from the messages it’s trying to present.
That said, Antebellum does a remarkable job at reframing slavery into the milieu of the horror genre. There will no doubt be ceaseless and pointless discourse from horror fanboys on Twitter who charge the film with that most heinous of crimes for a horror movie to commit: not being scary. This is always the first and most boring charge levied against films that work within the confines of the genre without kowtowing to the tropes and expectations of fans. And it’s always wrong.
Perhaps especially so in this case. Here, the monsters and boogeymen of traditional horror are replaced with Confederate officers and modern racists. Where the so-called afficionados of horror will quibble is that “the best” horror villains are the faceless others. The relentless stalking of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. The burned visage of Freddy Krueger. The truth is that the atrocities of the Confederates are no less terrifying than the murders of any of horror’s most notorious villains.
Rape, abuse, murder, psychological torment, emotional separation. All of these are horrific and all of these have been used by horror over the years to hammer home just how terrifying their villain is. Bush and Renz, for their part, handle that connection well. Indeed, many of Antebellum’s scenes are absolutely terrifying and, in a vacuum, quite amazing.
That’s precisely what Antebellum does best. We’re given access to firsthand views of slavery and by working in the horror milieu, we’re allowed to view just how horrific slavery was on a human level. Can there really be that much difference between Eden and, say, Laurie Strode? There is absolutely not. And that’s fascinating to explore.
The problem, such as I can get into it without spoilers, is that so much of the premise is held together by thin threads. The act 3 reveal brings up more questions than it does answers and, as a result, flattens its villains. While the premise of the twist is, on paper, quite brilliant, the narrative execution isn’t there at a level deep enough to keep the film from imploding in on itself.
What this leaves us with is a film with a lot of intriguing ideas that it ultimately cannot support. It’s not so much a bad film as it is a disappointing and frustrating one. Be that as it may, there is still enough to appreciate about Antebellum to warrant at least a single watch, even if the whole ultimately fizzles.
Antebellum is now available via On Demand platforms.