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Antebellum

**

by Matt Anderson

published September 18, 2020

Antebellum is noble in its intentions, but clumsy in its execution.

The Past Is Never Dead

The less one knows about the mechanics of Antebellum’s story going in helps to make the journey more intriguing. But the finale doesn’t quite pull it all together effectively. There are a couple different movies in here, either one could serve as the basis for a horror story along the lines of Get Out or Us. But, as it stands, while all three share a couple producers, this is a completely different production — without Jordan Peele — and the juggling act this time leaves a lot of ideas crashing to the floor.

The first third of Antebellum sets up a perfectly good period piece drama and it begins to gel as a horror story surrounding Civil War era slavery. There’s the brutality of enslavement: abuse, murder, the egomaniacal lording over the disenfranchised.

Events turn darker and darker until a slave is ordered to clean out the furnace, a tiny crematorium where the unspeakable is performed. Right at that moment, there’s a ghostly, supernatural tone that seeps in. It’s starting to get spooky. But then, it’s lost with a quick cut to modern times.

From there, the story struggles to make sense of its own setup. Surely there’s a doozy of a Twilight Zone-style twist right around the corner.

Alas, when that corner is finally turned, it’s way past twilight.

Open Your Eyes

Take this as purely allegorical. It has to be; any attempt to take Antebellum as a straightforward story is ludicrous. The problem is, the characters, their backstories, their current stories — they don’t add up.

Consider the main protagonist, Dr. Veronica Henley (Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures). At one point she complains about working too hard, not being home enough, not having enough time for her daughter. Not being a good enough Mom. Her plight is shared by at least 95% of the world’s population. After that brutal opening act set in the cotton fields of Louisiana, Veronica’s story seems hollow. It would appear the slavery horrors were in her nightmares.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Potentially, not that deep, either.

Veronica lives a well-heeled life as an author who dashes out to speaking engagements and book signings. She’s hosted in luxurious accommodations (with virtually no subtlety; she’s staying in the Jefferson suite in one posh hotel).

O to be Veronica. While traveling, she hangs out with a couple old friends — both extremely man hungry.

But, don’t stop there. Throw in a bizarre character played by Jena Malone (The Neon Demon) who rather inexplicably has it in for Veronica — both the contemporary author of social justice books with titles like Shedding the Coping Persona and the less successful version of her, the one trapped in an 1860s plantation.

That’s when Antebellum toys with turning into something along the lines of The Shining. A little bit. But, once again, that supernatural spook factor disappears as quickly as it appears.

Maybe the problem is this is the first time Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have written and directed a feature-length movie. Their roots are in fashion and luxury advertising. They morphed into social justice campaigns and music videos. Perhaps that explains this story’s bizarrely unbalanced swings between the glam life and the slave life. There’s a serious lack of focus here on a very serious topic. Maybe the problem is Bush + Renz had a certain movie in mind, but the powers that be were after something else.

Ultimately, if the name “M. Night Shyamalan” were attached to this concoction, it would’ve been another source of derision along the lines of The Village.

Time Stamp

Antebellum is a pretentious bill of goods when it should’ve been a powerful reexamination of the Bill of Rights.

So many good ideas flitter across the screen. It’s all right there in some of the dialogue (the bits when Veronica and her lady friends aren’t talking about the brutally superficial).

The past. The present. How the past complicates the present.

The extent to which this one is more Shining or Shyamalan is debatable, but there’s no question the story at times tries to be too sophisticated for its own good. It’s an ambitious project, so credit goes to Bush + Benz for trying to pull it off. It’s also quite a role for Monae to show a considerable amount of range.

But, even in the opening act, the mannerisms and language of the characters don’t feel “authentic,” all of the characters sound too modern. A twist of it all happening in Veronica’s mind could’ve explained that away. Subsequent twists, though, take away that interpretation in favor of the allegorical — and unsatisfying — climax. Perhaps ironically, “authenticity” surfaces as its own topic in one of Veronica’s conversations. “Within our authenticity lies our real power.” In the end, Antebellum lacks that authenticity.

There are a lot of catchphrases and buzzwords here. Personas. Patriarchy. Authenticity. Inclusion. Liberation over assimilation. Live in the present. Be present. The symbolism of butterflies and metamorphosis.

It seems like Bush + Renz almost have it all coming together when Veronica steps out onto a modern street and nearly gets sideswiped — not by a Maserati, but by a horse-drawn carriage.

But it was just another flirtatious brush with something that could’ve made for a powerful, generations-spanning tale of slavery, entrapment and empowerment. Instead, Veronica is — arguably — the wrong character to lead that sort of storyline.

Instead, there’s a jarring encounter that ends Veronica’s story and sends the action back to the cotton fields. Sure enough, there is a final twist. But one that is, most certainly, less Twilight Zone and more Shyamalan. Rather than serving as a powerful statement, it feels more like a disservice to so many people and so many struggles.