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Given its subject matter, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum is a film that is arriving at the perfect time. A powerful and righteous movement is working to finally have America undergo a reckoning in regards to slavery and how it has evolved into modern systemic racism, and the new thriller is at its core about the Black experience in the United States and how the nation’s original sin continues to resonate and impact the world. There are emotional sequences that hit particularly hard given the heightened atmosphere of the moment, and there is also a catharsis in seeing art and pop culture reflect the very real struggle that we see every day.
The hang-up is that as socially conscience and incredibly relevant as the movie is, it also happens to come up a bit short in terms of capitalizing on its central hook. Without giving too much away (as it’s a film with secrets that absolutely must be protected), Antebellum features a demarcated three-act structure that finds its first two thirds operating in tandem to set up the conclusion, but it winds up being a case of reach exceeding grasp as the climax is constructed to be more emotionally satisfying than logistically satisfying, and you’re left asking a lot of reasonable comprehension questions for which the story provides no concrete answers.
Our protagonist in the movie is Eden (Janelle Monae), a young woman who is trapped working as a slave on a cotton plantation with particularly severe rules and horrible sadists as overseers, led by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston). It is strictly enforced that no slave is allowed to speak unless they are given permission, and the punishment for disobedience is brutal.
Though past attempts at escape have led to horrible consequences, including getting branded on her back, Eden’s resilience is strong, and she continues to work to find a way out – quietly communicating with a friend (Tongayi Chirisa) to pick the right time. Things aren’t quite what they initially seem, however, as the urban-set second act provides new context for everything that precedes it, leaving the third act to arrange the puzzle pieces and explain how it all fits together.
The principal problem with Antebellum is that said puzzle piece arrangement and explanation doesn’t go as smoothly or effectively as one would hope, and while providing a full and detailed critique about why that’s the case would reveal too much that’s not meant to be revealed pre-release, I will do my best to dance around the most sensitive pieces.
Antebellum needs a satisfying ending to match all the set-up, and it’s lacking one.
While there obviously is merit to handling a cinematic mystery with a subtle hand, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz take that a tad too far with their ending here, as the questions you’re left with aren’t the kind that should be left up to interpretation, but instead address holes in the plot that need filling. Save for one super exposition-heavy monologue late in the movie, there is no real effort to address the important, big picture machinations in the story, and while the filmmakers deserve credit for lacing the background with interesting Easter eggs, they aren’t capable of performing the necessary heavy lifting.
The lacking conclusion takes other forms as well. There are particular moments in the modernity-set half that you expect are going to get some kind of payoff given the significant amount of time dedicated to them, but in the end they get no attention. This leads one to wonder retroactively why the non-setup/setup scenes (particularly those that completely break from the tone of the rest of the film) made it into the cut, and like the aforementioned queries derived directly from the plot, there is no apparent answer.
There are some excellent performances in Antebellum, with Janelle Monae and Kiersey Clemons being particular standouts.
While it may trip itself up at the end, what isn’t taken away from Antebellum is the fact that it is a deeply-felt emotional experience, which is provided in large part by excellent performances from an awesome cast. Janelle Monae, to start, is a force, and on track to become one of the industry’s great multi-hyphenates with her turn as the lead here. There is a remarkable projected strength that Eden possesses that is not only impactful to witness, providing the character great fortitude in even the most painful and fraught moments, but also delivers a powerful sense of hope that penetrates through the darkness. And all of this is accomplished with relatively very little dialogue.
Comparably, Kiersey Clemons also does some tremendous work as Julia, a new arrival at the plantation at the start of the film who acts to a certain degree as the audience surrogate while she is initiated into the operation. It’s a fascinatingly-built character, as she has a firebrand spirit that is paired with an innocence that comes from the fact that she is pregnant, and Clemons is able to squeeze every drop from the role with devastating impact.
Visually, Antebellum shows great promise from two first-time feature filmmakers.
For all of its issues and assets, what’s arguably most exciting about Antebellum is the arrival of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz on the feature stage – making their debut after establishing themselves over the last decade in the shorts, music video and advertising worlds. Their thoughtfulness and creativity has the potential to get them far as storytellers, and their eye for visuals is demonstrably strong. The movie wastes no time pushing you into the back of your seat as it opens with an incredible unbroken tracking shot, and throughout there a number of striking scenes and impressive moments captured that suggest the filmmakers are capable of great things.
Antebellum is a minor disappointment in the sense that it doesn’t ultimately live up to its full promise, but it’s also a movie that has tremendous merit and important things to say while being released during a time of enhanced strife. It doesn’t fully click as a narrative, but its aspirations and messaging are admirable, and it will hopefully inspire audiences to be excited for what all involved have coming next.