Antebellum’s syncopation of genres and styles rarely mesh, but hits enough notes to recognize the tune.
Another casualty of the Covid quarantine, Antebellum was high up on my “to see” list thanks to its star, Janelle Monae, and its haunting trailer. To my dismay, the finished product is a very different type of film than what the trailer pointed to. Luckily, some nice cinematography and gritty performances help keep Antebellum from being a total disappointment.
Antebellum (Sep. 2020)
Successful author Veronica Henley (Janelle Monae) is finishing a book tour before she returns home to her husband and daughter. But a shocking turn of events is about to upend Veronica’s existence, plunging her into a horrifying reality that forces her to confront her past, present and future — before it’s too late.
What I Expected.
The trailers for this movie wind up being quite deceptive. The first teaser makes you think that Janelle’s character, Veronica, exists simultaneously in the modern world and the American South during the Civil War. The way that modern elements like a plane overhead blink into and out of existence give you the impression that something supernatural is at play.
A later trailer really plays up creepy horror movie elements, like a little girl who comes off as a poltergeist.
While the film has some unreliable narrator elements and a protracted horror segment about Veronica’s abduction, those aren’t really what this film is. As much as the studio is trying to visually link the film to the supernatural, metaphor-laden horrors of Jordan Peele, Antebellum is just not an analogue to Get Out.
What I Got.
Antebellum struck me as two movies in conflict with each other, which nonetheless shine light on each other. The lion’s share of the film is a familiar story about slavery, which shares many elements of both story and visual style with films such as 12 Years a Slave and the miniseries opus, Roots. Dividing that film roughly in half is a segment that feels like a Blumhouse horror where creepy white people stalk and terrorize Veronica.
We can see how Veronica’s work as an outspoken advocate for racial equality retroactively shades the odd reactions she gets from the other “slaves” and the extra malice directed her way by the white overseers. Unfortunately, the parts are poorly connected in story and tone, leading to issues.
A House Divided Against Itself.
Because of the promotional material, we go in knowing that Veronica at least has visions of a life where she’s not a slave. This makes the first half of the film confusing or outright aggravating as we watch the script play coy about something we already know. While the part of the film on the plantation has great cinematography, costuming, and music, we can’t really appreciate it the same way those elements could be appreciated in 12 Years a Slave. We’re too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That stately pace bleeds into the horror segment, making it feel glacial. As we’ve also figured out what’s really going on at the plantation from verbal cues (current dog whistles sneak into the vernacular of the whites, hinting that they’re modern racists playacting instead of real, old-timey racists) I was also impatient with the horror plot. I know they kidnap her, get on with it.
It’s a shame, since on it’s own it is at least as effective a horror movie set up as any other Blumhouse flick, and certainly resonates with today’s audience since we’ve got fricking white nationalists roaming the streets right now.
Addition by Subtraction.
I wanted to enjoy Antebellum more than I actually wound up enjoying it. Monae has been really great in her other roles, and certainly has the steely delivery to bring Veronica to life. The plantation segment is convincing, though it feels heavily indebted to other films in the genre.
The horror plot could likewise stand on its own and work just fine. God knows that Confederate fetishists terrorizing black people and longing for the “good old days” of slavery is on brand as fuck for 2020. The way they’re layered winds up being the problem.
At the end of the day, the film works, but just barely. The subtlety of the critique of modern racism found in Jordan Peele’s films is missing, instead replaced with a megaphone. You either see the elements coming from miles off, or are frustrated by them suddenly popping in unannounced.
Had the film actually inter-cut the two parts to create more uncertainty, as the trailer implied, I think the two elements would have fused better. It would certainly have prolonged the tension in a way that didn’t undermine the pace or style of the piece.