Janelle Monáe as Veronica Henley / Eden
Eric Lange as Him
Jena Malone as Elizabeth
Jack Huston as Captain Jasper
Kiersey Clemons as Julia
Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn
Marque Richardson as Nick
Tongayi Chirisa as Eli
Robert Aramayo as Daniel
Co-Written & Co-Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
In the wake of Jordan Peele’s breathtaking directorial debut Get Out, the horror-thriller genre has seen a beautiful revival of tales that not only seek to shock its audiences but also inform them on the struggles persons of color and various genders endure in contemporary America and while Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum certainly does plenty of the latter, it unfortunately is thoroughly lacking in the former.
Successful author and social justice pioneer Veronica Henley has her world upheaved as she finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and living on an 1800s plantation and must uncover the secret behind the mind-bending mystery and confront the past, the present and the future to get back home to her husband and daughter before it’s too late.
The concept for the film is truly brilliant, the idea of a modern-day woman suddenly finding herself in the past only instead of a cheery situation like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it’s the horrific racist time of the American South, but one of the film’s problems comes in that it doesn’t take full advantage of this premise. It takes plenty of time to build the tension in its present day scenes and to develop Veronica into one of the most intelligent and easy-to-root-for Black women of the genre in the past decade while the plantation scenes do well to show off the real horrors of the past, but the two really feel like disparate halves that add up to a disappointing whole.
Thematically, the two match up brilliantly as a way to explore idea of never forgetting the horrible past and the attempt at erasure of the culture and voices of the African-American community in America and when it hits, it hits hard, but the problem is sometimes it’s too on the nose or just not subtle enough to meld with its genre home. Bush and Renz clearly have great messages fighting to be heard from within in the story, but without properly executing its ambitious plot, it almost threatens to silence itself.
The film isn’t thoroughly disappointing, as there are a number of elements that not only work but prove to be outstanding, one of which is the direction from the duo. In their feature debut, Bush and Renz show an incredible grasp on delivering artfully shot scenes from start to finish, especially all the scenes set on the plantation as there’s such an interesting combination of a clean palette of sun-bathing colors in the daytime to the muted but compelling shades of orange in the nighttime.
It is also supported by truly breathtaking performances from its entire cast, especially those of Monáe, Malone and Huston. In just under five years of appearing on screens, Monáe has proven herself to be one of the best musicians-turned-actors in a long while and though this may not see her peak performance just quite yet, it sees her truly shine as an empowering and brilliant modern Black woman that feels very much in line with her own efforts that she helps bring her character to life in stellar fashion. When it comes to portraying a completely despicable racist in this day and age, one could either go with a more subtle approach or go full cartoonish with their performance, but Huston and Malone find a nice middle ground with plenty of moments that dangerously approach becoming caricatures but pull back just enough to give their characters an extra layer of complexity to keep them watchable across its 106-minute runtime.
Antebellum was certainly a film with plenty of potential to explore some important timely topics while simultaneously delivering some chills and thrills, but with such a focus on the former it loses sight of how to achieve the latter that it proves a disappointment, especially in its time-bending revelations, that even its strong performances and stylish direction can’t quite save the experience.