Antebellum captures the horrific brutality of slavery, but fails to be compelling in any other regard. The graphic imagery and violence is distressing. Scene after scene of beatings, lynchings, and rape evoke visceral reactions. The film attempts to draw parallels between America’s greatest sin and its continuing effect on modern society. The leaden script fumbles that goal with an absurd plot, cardboard characters, and poorly staged reveals. Antebellum had opportunities to be insightful. But squanders the teachable moments with a lack of depth and heavy-handed delivery.
In Antebellum, an escaped slave girl is hunted down like an animal. Confederate Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) smiles as he throws a noose around her neck. The other slaves on the plantation pick cotton furiously with their heads down. Any word or gaze will have significant repercussions. Another escapee is brought along on horseback. The General (Eric Lange) takes her to his cabin for a vicious beating. He forces her to scream her name, Eden (Janelle Monáe), before continuing to have his way. He stokes a brand in the fire.
Dr. Veronica Henley (also Janelle Monáe) awakens from a nightmare. She kisses her husband and daughter before preparing to leave for a book conference. Her family lauds her television debate performance on the continuing impacts of slavery. Veronica checks into her upscale hotel, but can sense racist slights from the staff. A bizarre interview with a strange journalist (Jena Malone) puts her on edge. Another encounter in the elevator raises her suspicions further. There’s something amiss that she just can’t put her finger on.
The mystery at the heart of Antebellum is obvious after the first act. This is done by design and a serious miscalculation by the filmmakers. Co-writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Rentz fumble nuance in their feature film debut. The appalling slavery scenes have confederate flags waving while soldiers march proudly with torches. This is meant to mirror the tragic events at Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The comparison is evident without sledgehammer tactics. Bush and Rentz leap over substantial exposition to show that white supremacist ideology is thriving today. The how and why elements of the actual plot are completely ignored.
Antebellum‘s realistic depiction of sexual abuse is difficult to watch. Slave women were subject to any whim of their despicable masters. Janelle Monáe is repeatedly violated and assaulted. On one hand, I appreciate Gerard Bush and Christopher Rentz pulling no punches. The hideous treatment of black women in this country has historically been glossed over by Hollywood. Antebellum shines a glaring spotlight on an ugly past. The problem is that it turns into torture porn. The point is made to an extreme. Monáe’s victimization becomes overbearing. She’s a punching bag for too long.
Antebellum is a production of QC Entertainment, the same company that made Get Out, BlacKkKlansman, and Us. Those films were absolutely riveting. Racial themes and social commentary were successfully integrated to captivating stories. Antebellum has an interesting premise that could have been on par with their previous hits. It sadly lacks finesse, character detail, and directorial execution. Antebellum will be available September 18th on demand from Lionsgate.
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