Review: Janelle Monáe social thriller 'Antebellum' lacks empathy and emotion
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Hard to believe, but it’s been three years since the success of “Get Out,” a social commentary on the Black experience and the inherent racism embedded in our society. Producers, now turned directors, Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz, are taking a cue from the Jordan Peele playbook, and tackling a high concept thriller highlighting race relations in America. Their debut feature, “Antebellum” takes some mighty swings, showcasing two painful truths about living in the past and present concurrently. The duo have some tricks up their sleeves, including a harrowing, brutal, opening sequence that would suggest a bright career ahead of them, but their scope and ambition gets lost amid a hollow narrative more keen on shock value than digging into the core subject.
Attempting to steer a conversation of the moment, “Antebellum” presents a time bending horror flick trying to connect America’s ultimate sin of slavery with the present day turmoil of racial injustice plaguing the streets and social airwaves. Easier said than done, as the filmmakers ultimately lose sight of that truth, focusing more on the violence than trying to start a meaningful dialogue.
The film follows two characters, both named Veronica, played by Janelle Monáe. One of the them is a successful author - currently on a tour for her book, “Shedding the Coping Persona,” an uplifting novel encouraging Black women to use their voice - and the other a slave, enduring countless hours of hard labor and spending nights getting whipped and assaulted because she won’t accept her name is Eden. The juxtaposition of these two timelines is painful to endure, like a bad case of whiplash that won’t subside.
Each “world” is populated with their own batch of characters and one villain named Elizabeth (Jena Malone) who steps in and out of both. She’s a sly character with a familiar vernacular of racial undertones that could make the blood of any African-American boil. Sometimes, it’s not what she says but how she behaves. Even a backhanded compliment about red lipstick lands like a slap in the face. You know the type.
But the film doesn’t spend as much time with the present-day Veronica as one would expect, instead gutting the emotional crux of her personal life, family and friends in favor of the slavery-set sequences. Yet, oddly enough, most of the slaves on the plantation exist more as archetypes than actual people, which, ironically, includes Veronica. The film never answers the question of how long she, or any of these folks, have been in captivity, rather, “Antebellum,” spends a good chunk of the first hour showing Veronica getting raped by the owner of the plantation played with grim menace by Eric Lange. And then his second-in-command, Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), tormenting a pregnant slave named Julia (Kiersey Clemons).
Considering “Antebellum” is in the rare position of being a mainstream studio picture centered around the pain, trauma, and suffering Black women faced on plantations, you would think the filmmakers would understand how imperative it is to honor their legacies, and treat rape as a serious endeavor. But it’s such a nonchalant inclusion that it actually feels insulting to anyone watching. I would imagine Veronica would be seriously affected by these assaults and thus Bush and Renz not only fail to give their film (and characters) any humanity, empathy, and emotion, but when a late, third act, M Night Shyamalan-esq, twist is presented, the entire framework of “Antebellum” becomes undone.
What you're left with is a film that wants to make some big splashy revelations, and amid all the undeveloped set pieces, forgets what it’s actually fighting for. The entire cast, especially Monáe who’s a remarkable talent, deserve better than a half baked social commentary that chooses style over substance.
ANTEBELLUM will be available on premium VOD starting Friday September 18th.