Antebellum, the first feature by writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, comes out swinging with a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A long tracking shot lays out time and space: a plantation in what looks to be the titular pre-Civil War American South. The protagonist briefly appears, but the focus is on a rumble in the background. A male slave, presumably a caught runaway, is fitted with an iron yoke while his wife attempts to flee. She does not make it—a gunshot cracks across the country sky. Underneath the stylized veneer of the sequence lies a declaration: This will be a thriller of witness and resistance.
Janelle Monáe stars as Veronica, a successful present-day author who finds herself cornered in a realm of terror that upends her very reality. She wakes up in a cotton plantation dressed in period clothing and at the mercy of the owner, Elizabeth (Jena Malone), and the Confederate soldiers quartered there. Significantly, nothing of the land surrounding the plantation grounds is shown. What sounds at first like a fascinating adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred instead fumbles the narrative ball and goes ham-handed into a fully predictable ending that (without spoilers) we’ve all seen before.
One may think of M. Night Shyamalan, though not just because of the hoodwink lurking in the third act. The Signs director is patient, with a penchant for lingering for effect. Bush and Renz are just as caring toward their characters, savoring every side-eye, whisper, and wail. They’ve got a four-pronged storm of performance at their disposal. Monáe wows in the lead role—there’s great gravity to her words and silence. Malone counterbalances the star’s composed restraint with the zealous theatricality of a Carol Burnett Southern belle caricature, even when delivering cringe-inducing lines like “Accept what you are—you ain’t nothin’ but a cotton picker.” And then there’s Gabourey Sidibe, radiant in the comedic function of Veronica’s bestie, effortlessly navigating the microaggressions her character faces. Likewise, Kiersey Clemons, who blew away genre fans last year in J.D. Dillard’s festival darling Sweetheart. She’s commanding and doe-eyed as fellow plantation captive Julia, but also stuck with more sledgehammer dialogue: “Oh, you think being quiet is being strong, huh? What has that ever gotten us?” If only the filmmakers trusted their actors to convey the messages of this story, instead of burdening them with obvious, explanatory lines and speeches.
Antebellum has a lot to say about race, class, and gender—issues inextricable for Black women. From snooty hotel clerks to waiters recommending cheap items on the menu to backhanded “You’re so articulate!” compliments, each interaction Veronica has with white people in her “real” world is laced with offense at her identity as a 1) Black 2) woman who is 3) doing well enough for herself to be seen, by them, as someone rising above her station. (Obviously, offenses become far less passive-aggressive on the plantation.) But the themes are distributed with a heavy hand throughout the narrative. When a colleague of Veronica remarks during an unnaturally academic conversation in a hotel lobby that “the unresolved past can certainly cause havoc on the present,” all that’s missing is a wink to the audience. Turns out the filmmakers don’t trust us, either.
The spoon-feeding is especially disappointing given the film’s technical mastery. Steadicam and serpentine camerawork fuse imagery of the past and the present together seamlessly, and match cuts handle the rest. Cinematographer Pedro Luque departs from the largely interior visual storytelling of past horror features he’s worked on, like The Silent House and Don’t Breathe, to capture the sprawl of cotton fields and the city. Aside from a pair of mirrored slow-motion sequences bookending the story, the style is stark. The film’s monsters are front and center, loud and proud, and as comfortable with coming out of the shadows as their recently emboldened real life counterparts. As slaves toil in the heat, the overseer’s smug encouragement to “let the sound of Confederate victory bring joy to your labor” rings as callously as the “Shut up and dribble” vomitus filling the evening news in the wake of the NBA players’ strike. The Confederate line is exhaustingly evergreen for certain parties: Northern enemies are “traitors” to America, slaves are to comply under unjust rule or violence is justified against them, etc.
The brutality is a hypersensitive subject. While Black voices across social media and beyond point out that videos of police violence and extrajudicial killings of Black citizens shouldn’t be shared in order for Black humanity to be acknowledged, co-director Bush counters (in an introduction to the film) that because the North American landscape is “at this incredible racial reckoning,” the vicious imagery of Antebellum “confronts the truth of our past and its ugliness.” While the onscreen violence inflicted upon Black bodies in the film is returned in kind, it doesn’t make the beatings, rapes, and murders any easier to watch—they’re not supposed to be. Bush and Renz set out to make a film of reckoning, and as terribly unsubtle as it is, they have succeeded. The mechanics fail to match the details of character and theme, but Antebellum has its finger on the pulse of an American populace that hears the traditional song of racial injustice and seeks to bump the needle.