Co-writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz give us a twisty horror film with an unexpected reveal that melds the social injustices that remain today with the atrocities of the past. Reminiscent of “Get Out” and starring Janelle Monáe in a dual role, “Antebellum” is a brutal reminder of the horrors of slavery and perception of the value of life all determined by skin color.
The opening single shot (or at least it appears to be) brings us into the past, to a plantation in the Deep South during the Civil War. Slaves work tirelessly and silently while those in charge take joy in threatening, beating and killing them with absolutely no regret. The pain inflicted upon the slaves is palpable and heartbreaking, immediately inciting anger and repulsion toward the white owners, but when we meet Eden (Monáe), the wounds inflicted are unspeakable.
We spend time in this era and this plantation to understand the slave owners led by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) threaten to beat, torture or even kill a slave for merely speaking. Communication among the slaves is one of the most offensive behaviors, and we find out just why much later in the film.
Flashing to a different time, we see the happy, strong leader Veronica (Monáe) as she prepares for a convention to illuminate and empower Black women to stand on their own and support one another. Not only is she a powerful and well-known spokesperson, she’s a happily married woman and mother of an adorable little girl.
There are plenty of clues along the way to either lead your mind down the wrong path or give you an inkling as to what actually is happening, but if you’re similar to me, you fall for the wrong bait every time, making for an even more shocking reveal at the end. Writers Bush and Renz hook you as we get to know all of the characters, even the slaves who don’t have much dialogue but communicate so much with their eyes and body language.
In the current day, Veronica is a role model as she stands strong to fight injustices and combat those with antiquated perceptions and ideas. Her friends, very different from her, are an uplifting, and even humorous, portion of the film that otherwise is very heavy and disturbing. Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), a matchmaker guru with the confidence of Mohammed Ali, gives a would-be suitor a tutorial on how to approach a woman … and she’s dead right. The levity of this scene comes at just the right time.
During the film, we are guessing how these two time periods possibly could be connected. Again, the writers lead us astray, but it is our choice to choose to follow. The intensity grows as we witness Eden’s life crumble quickly amid her inability to escape her confines as well as watching Veronica’s situation unravel.
Monáe expertly creates these two personas, one a confident woman ready to take on the world, the other oppressed, scared and beaten into submission. But there’s something deep within that is boiling, and we see the strength within her character giving us hope. Monáe’s characters are the focal point of both stories and take us on a disturbing journey, connecting us to both of her characters. As the stories unfold, thanks to her performance, the direction and the camera work, we walk beside her, feeling helpless in many situations and appalled our country once regarded Blacks with such disdain and worthlessness. Equally powerful are Huston and Jena Malone’s (Elizabeth) portrayal of the plantation owners and supporters of the South’s position in the Civil War. Their cold, callous and hateful performances are the core of the film and what the writers are attempting to convey.
Bringing this dark situation and story to life also is dependent on capturing it cinematically. The first seamless shot introducing us to the plantation brings us into the heart of Dixie with all its ugly flaws to make us feel the pain and sorrow of the past. Capturing the emotion of each of the characters, both the good and the bad, is expertly executed in order to allow the viewer to feel and comprehend the direness of the situations.
“Antebellum” is a film that keeps your eyes glued, your attention rapt and your heart pounding until that final moment that makes everything crystal clear. It’s an aha moment that is hauntingly memorable.
Reel Talk rating: 3.5 stars