It’s no secret that I absolutely adore Janelle Monáe. I have since her first album, The Archandroid, all the way up the absolutely masterful Dirty Computer album of 2018. I genuinely believe that she is this generation’s Prince in her ability to both tap into the public mindset of what they want to hear and subvert expectations into something far more groundbreaking and avant garde than audiences expect from surface level; it’s truly thrilling. Given her incredibly theatrical musical style, it was only a matter of time before she came to the screen, and in 2016, she broke through in starring in not one, but two Best Picture nominees, Hidden Figures and Moonlight (which famously won the Oscar for Best Picture that year in the great La La Land mix-up of 2017). Since then, she has been floating in and around supporting roles in films like Welcome to Marwen and Harriet, but the time has finally come for Monáe’s first starring role, in a horror film no less, produced by the team behind Get Out and Us. I genuinely couldn’t fathom how perfect of a pairing this sounded like on paper, and the trailers for Antebellum never led me to believe anything other than Monáe’s genre breakthrough was coming around the bend.
So…what the fuck happened here?
Set in the slavery-era South (hence the title), Eden (Monáe) is a quiet, but equally mistreated slave on the plantation of the cruel Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his wife, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Suffering at the hands of cruel slavers, she and another slave, Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), plan to make a grand escape to freedom. Meanwhile, in the modern day, writer Veronica Henley (Monáe, in a dual role) is a successful author of novels surrounding the social and economic injustices of race in the United States. At a convention in New Orleans, Veronica soon begins to question her sanity as she finds the world between hers and Eden’s narrowing to a dangerous degree. She soon begins to realize that the bonds between her and Eden’s stories are closer than she could’ve imagined.
Let’s get the good out of the way first, because there is some good in this mess, albeit all separate from each other, preventing any sort of cohesion. Monáe is good throughout, but her performance doesn’t stand out in the ways that Kiersey Clemons’s performance as Julia, a new slave to the plantation dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn, Veronica’s feisty matchmaker friend she meets in New Orleans, do. These performances work well simply because they’re far more interesting than the empty shells of archetypes that fill out the rest of the film, and even in saying so, these are still simply archetypes played up with a bit more heart.
Antebellum is also a very nice aesthetic experience all around from its opening long-shot detailing the operations of the plantation from the picturesque to the horrifying, to the film’s wonderfully bleak lighting scheme, to its fabulous musical score from frequent Monáe collaborators Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur. This is a film that would benefit from the largest screen and biggest speakers possible. There are moments attractive and aurally satisfying enough to almost convince me that I liked the film at some points.
But that simply wasn’t the case.
First off, let’s dispel a myth that might have been fed into by the film’s marketing campaign: Antebellum was not produced by Jordan Peele. While Jordan Peele did produce Get Out and Us through his Monkeypaw Productions brand, he also worked with QC Entertainment on the projects, who produced Antebellum. What Antebellum lacks that the aforementioned films have is a smart outlook on the nature of the storytelling at hand, and a subtle hand in manipulating it to subvert expectations. While Antebellum is a mysterious film that has its fair share of twists, there isn’t a moment that doesn’t feel obvious and heavy-handed to the point where it borderlines on camp (and not the fun kind, the unintentional kind).
But camp can be fun, so what’s the problem? Well, it also doesn’t help that Antebellum is one of the cruelest films I’ve seen in quite some time. One can argue about the necessity of films that depict the painful history of slavery, but even something as straightforward as 12 Years a Slave has moments of subtlety that bring a humanity to its main characters which makes the unspeakable violence so much more jarring. Antebellum takes none of the time to build that trust with the audience, rather subjecting them to empty, unnecessary atrocities that simply reinforce the pervasiveness of racist violence in the media as a norm. As ignorant as many racist Americans would love to deem themselves to be on the nature of racism, most everyone knows the horrific violence that occurred during this stain in history, and repeating said violence to make a horror film out of it does nobody any good. It simply rehashes the trauma that many Black Americans still feel to this day without any substance or subtext to it.
And sure, Antebellum has a subtext on how the stain of America’s original sin has traveled through time and never left American culture, but everything is played with such a shallow, clunky hand that there aren’t any moments where any of the film’s horrific violence has any weight to it. It’s all empty displays of violence for the sake of violence, and while I know that existed in the cruel days of slavery, I once again have to ask: who is this film for then?
And on top of that, to add insult to injury, the dialogue of the film is genuinely some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard all year in a film. For a film to try so hard to be up-to-date on all the new slang and be as trendy as it can be, it comes across as so inorganic that it’s cringe-inducing at points. Even someone with a saving grace performance, like Sidibe, can’t completely outrun the completely inept attempt at tapping into the ever-changing nature of slang, particularly that of African American Vernacular English, which they don’t even get right half of the time in the film. It all comes across like a lame white parent trying to be cool to their child’s black friend, and it just doesn’t work.
I knew that a knee-jerk reaction to something like Get Out would come down the line in the form of a corporatized bastardization on a “socially conscious” horror project, I just really hoped it wasn’t going to be Antebellum, for Monáe’s sake, but here we are. I can see where the idea of the film was going, but everything about it feels so incredibly unnecessarily cruel that it’s difficult to like anything about the film. Add in its horribly clumsy screenplay and strange pacing and you’re left with a film that’s style-over-substance, as well as cruelty-over-humanity, an element that Antebellum desperately needed to succeed on. No amount of talent in front of or behind a camera can fix that problem.
Available on Premium VOD September 18th, 2020.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.
For more information, head to the official Antebellum website.