“From the people behind Get Out and Us,” the words stamped on a film stifled with hype and such potential that would ensure audiences will confront that twist they will be talking about for years to come. Get Out had a scary (yet scintillating) twist, and Us produced one that made us look genuinely within (no pun intended).
Antebellum is an overthought mediocrity of a film that Lionsgate and Co. should be somewhat embarrassed to present to its viewers. On the heels of a polarizing worldwide conundrum and an opportunity to further expose the darkness of what America has become built on since its inception, the ideas and twists the screenwriters pulled off for the sake of this feature was ludicrous.
That word is the best way to describe this film. It is one built of such savagery that starts to leave the viewer reeling in such frustration once the second and third acts kick in. A well-developed production, a discomforting scenery, and thought-provoking themes were all at hand. Unfortunately, they became swindled once the writers decided to indulge a contentious structure and horrendous plot twists.
The film starts with a beautiful seven-minute opening; a rendered tracking shot sifts through a plantation that has become a household for Confederate soldiers during the 1860s (Civil Wartime). We have the soldiers marching through, a young white girl skipping, and a black man screaming in agony as he watches a young black woman gets murdered.
The horror already plants itself from the opening, and it continues for the next thirty minutes with slaves being beaten, ostracized, and pushed to the brink of death (if they have not met it already). We encounter Eden (played by Janelle Monae), who becomes branded for being emotionally insubordinate. We also meet Julia (Kiersey Clemon), a pregnant slave who tries to befriend a Confederate soldier but ends up on the derogatory end with a life-threatening assault. The racism is prevalent on-screen, so much that directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz ensure one can understand how people of color stayed unfairly treated for centuries.
The first act has locked onto this monstrous life in the confining plantation setting, where the slaves’ plot to escape the despicable soldiers. The latter claim to be “descendants of God” and see to it that the land won’t be lost “by these traitors to America.” Maladroit symbolism and slurs spill across the screen (ex. One soldier says another is a “snowflake,” a black man calls a soldier “cracker,” and troops chant “blood and soil”).
And then, the production team decided to jarringly jump to a completely different setting in the second act. Monae is now Veronica Henley, a successful author living in a lovely home with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and young, innocent daughter Kennedi (London Boyce). As she promotes her latest book that empowers young black women, she ventures out with friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) to deal with even more instances of subtle racism. Veronica also has chilling interactions with Elizabeth (Jena Malone), who not only looks like some plantation owner’s wife but also steals Veronica’s lipstick after their brief Skype interaction.
Huh? What? Where did this originate?
Did we witness a scene from Twilight Zone? Didn’t the writers also utilize a location with a little white girl in the hallway a la The Shining with no actual practicality?
We struggle to move into the third act, where answers come to light, but it is so silly and pompous that this writer became convinced he was watching the “Martha” twist from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Everything that had been built spectacularly, in the beginning, becomes counterintuitive, as it cordons off America’s horrific past with flimsy twists and an egregious ending. In case one is wondering, the smartphone’s presence in the third act telegraphs to one how contrived this became.
Sure, we may not escape the appalling past, but we can bolt from the confusing and lackadaisical Antebellum. If this feature shaved off the last sixty minutes, it would have been undisputedly worthwhile. Probably best to watch the first act, step out to engage in a sensible discussion with family and friends, and come back once the credits roll. Only then and there will the film have retained its fluidity and striking messages.