Synopsis – Successful author Veronica Henley finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.
My Take – With America finding itself in the middle of a deplorable escalation of racial violence and discrimination across the country it seems fitting that Lionsgate would release a provocative thriller centered on the horrors of slavery to cash in the drift.
Honestly what send this film prior to its release on my watch-list was how it uniquely inserted science fiction elements into the mix, with time travel type ploy playing a source of nightmare. Hyping the film to an extend that it was expected the receive an applauding response parallel to that of director Jordan Peele‘s 2017 dramatic horror ‘Get Out’. Unfortunately that not the case here.
While the end product is quite polished and seems uniquely envisioned, it isn’t scripted strongly, and just lacks the emotional core to carry it all the way through despite the utilization of the horrors of black slavery.
What makes matters worse is that the film is nothing like advertised, a horror film. Sure, its contents and messages are frightening, and its antagonists monsters in human guise, but it is never enough to push the film into the horror genre like the expertly crafted misleading trailers so badly wanted to. Though first time writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz do deserve points for trying to run the film as a grim drama with a searing damnation of racism, the sudden reveal, equivalent to a particular film from director M. Night Shyamalan, which too upon release saw middling reviews, just downs the film.
This is a kind of film that required true storytelling daring to pull off. A film that would blur history, fantasy, and darkest nightmare, with the cleverest calibration, while striking a balance between thrills and social commentary, but instead the film ends up using horrors of slavery as tropes of the genre to create shock and thrill.
The story follows Eden (Janelle Monáe), one of the many slaves held prisoner on a rural Confederate soldiers quartered cotton plantation, whose latest attempt to escape has been foiled by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), leaving her fellow escapees dead, her branded by the general (Eric Lange), and at the mercy of the owner, Elizabeth (Jena Malone).
Back in present day Washington, Eden was Veronica, a respected academic, activist and author who specialized in African American disenfranchisement, along with a gorgeously appointed home and a loving family. That is until she heads south to New Orleans for a speaking engagement, and finds herself cornered in a realm of terror that upends her very reality.
What initially sounded like a fascinating adaptation of author Octavia Butler’s chilling 1979 masterpiece novel, Kindred, instead fumbles the narrative ball and goes deep diving as the machinations of the plot are not subtle and the film seems more interested in showcasing torture rather than illuminating the racism that lives on today.
The film’s first act is just a ceaseless torrent of violence and abuse: One woman is killed for trying to run away; Eden is forcibly branded by her captors; and, in an especially distressing scene, a Confederate soldier sexually assaults an enslaved woman. Here, the terrifying realities of slavery are just reduced to horror-film tropes, with the cycle of violence seemingly existing only to hype up the climactic sequence of revenge.
Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz believe they have a clever film in hand, and treated with subtlety, could have resulted in a splendid film. But the third act is this film’s undoing. It embraces a twist that comes out of nowhere; one that undermines the real-life horrors of slavery the first act so eloquently echoed. To add to the flavor, we also get an elaborate action set-piece at the end which wraps things up in a humdrum way.
It seemed like the film had a point to make, that insidious prejudice still exists today, and that some white Americans would all too happily participate in the institution of slavery if given the chance. But not only do the antagonists rob the Black characters of any agency and humanity, the story itself does too.
Which is shame because Janelle Monáe literally kills it here with her powerful performance. She wows in the lead role and counterbalances the star’s composed restraint with the zealous theatricality, even when delivering cringe-inducing lines. Gabourey Sidibe is the only provided the opportunity to light up the film with a big, bright, sassy, funny, take-charge attitude and she does that wholeheartedly.
The white antagonists played by Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston and Robert Aramayo don’t get much to do, but go over the top with their evil deeds. While in supporting roles, Kiersey Clemons, Marque Richardson, Tongayi Chirisa, Lily Cowles and London Boyce are alright. On the whole, ‘Antebellum’ falls woefully short of its potential, despite an intriguing concept, due to a paint by numbers style of execution.
Rated – R
Run Time – 105 minutes