Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Originally set to be released in April before theaters closed down as states enacted quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ANTEBELLUM finds its way to the world of premium VOD five months later. A lot can happen in five months, particularly in 2020 where each succeeding month seems to raise the bar on the craziness scale.
Had theaters not closed and had Lionsgate opened its horror-thriller tinged with social commentary back in April, it would have been sandwiched between the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Calls to defund the police, a social media hashtag that became a movement (#BlackLivesMatter), and debate resurgence on removing Civil War statues and the usage of colloquialisms dealing with race and ethnicity, are just some of the aftereffects.
Even the word “antebellum” came under scrutiny. The country band Lady Antebellum is now Lady A.
For directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the title of their first film isn’t a problem. Now a timely release, it sets out to attack the antebellum world similarly to what Jordan Peele accomplished with his first two films. Whereas Peele’s works make viewers politically and socially uncomfortable in how black and white Americans interact (GET OUT), and America’s misguided fears of outsiders (US), ANTEBELLUM is a hybrid thriller without the nuance. It pretty much hits everything already mentioned: racism, social justice, and remnants from the Civil War flapping atop a flagpole. There’s even a white-nationalist conspiracy where a southern belle (a wicked Jena Malone), using means and opportunity, picks recreational entertainment participants with deadly implications.
The film opens with a quote by William Faulkner. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But if you aren’t familiar with Faulkner or his writings, would the quote register an impression? After all, this is the same man whose novel ABSALOM, ABSALOM! (published in 1936, the same year as GONE WITH THE WIND) would see him win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel uses a shifting narrative structure, providing a framework that allegorizes Southern history abutting facts, guesses, and speculation in reconstructing past events.
ANTEBELLUM toys with structure starting things out in medias res before flashing back to the inciting moment in how star Janelle Monáe finds herself transported to a reformer plantation run by the Confederate army. No time travel trickery is at play. It involves a twist that even M. Night Shyamalan could see coming. He’s even used it, too.
Here we go from being immersed in southern discomfort – watching black men and women pick cotton, be beaten, and murdered while attempting escape – to decompress as Monáe awakens. On the plantation, she is Eden, but in reality, she is Veronica Henley, PhD., author of a book encouraging the power of voice and black female empowerment titled “Shedding the Coping Persona.”
Was it only a nightmare?
The second act is Veronica leaving her husband and daughter to give a speaking engagement in Louisiana. Casual racism percolates at her hotel – where she is occupying the Jefferson suite (subtlety, I declare thee not) – and again at a restaurant nearby as the maître d’ directs Veronica and her friends to the table closest to the kitchen. One of the friends is old acquaintance Dawn, whom Veronica sees a few times a year. She’s played by Gabourey Sidibe, who shines with assured confidence, making her living as a relationship guru. Sidibe, in her limited screen time, provides comic relief with a smile, microaggressions, and an endless credit limit in opposition to southern hospitality hubris.
The business trip shows how Veronica deals with racism while advocating for racial and gender equality is scant when it comes to character development, making her a tourist without baggage to claim. So, Veronica is like a quasi-spectator who becomes an active participant once the foreboding ends and her “new normal” begins.
With a telegraphed twist, Bush and Renz disrupt the flow. Had it taken a linear approach, ANTEBELLUM wouldn’t feel as ludicrous. Instead, as impressive as its single-take open, prismatic and elevated by Roman Gian Arthur and Nate Wonder’s music score, and the slow-motion gallop to freedom that bookends the feature, the story has no emotion.
The audience is smart enough to know that what is happening is wrong, and a depiction of Veronica raped by the nameless plantation owner further concedes this idea. It’s not graphic, though sexual assault is a relevant subject. To see the action performed in such an informal fashion is very disconcerting. Considering that we never learn how long Veronica has been in bondage, we don’t come to know her as a survivor of sexual assault. What we do learn is that she’s been planning an escape that occurs once the owner has had his pleasure and drifted off to sleep. Casual rape as a plot device to initiate escape is just offensive.
Discovering that Bush and Renz acquired the lenses used for GONE WITH THE WIND and fit them for their cameras on this production – I guess to dispel any further romanticization of the classic film or the period – is a moot point.
Had their social commentary not been as blunt or forceful, which provides no perspective on the past, ANTEBELLUM could have been engaging and lived up to its lofty ambitions in addressing the horrors that are still prevalent today.
ANTEBELLUM is now available on PVOD.