(Warning, this review features references to racial violence and sexual violence)
Antebellum is a difficult movie to review. Not because of any strong inherent flaw, but because it’s built around a surprise (spoilers) twist. This inevitably hits you the hardest if you know as little as possible about the film going in. I know giving away the fact that there is a twist is a form of a spoiler, but if the trailer and marketing were happy to double down heavily on the feature, then I believe I am justified in pointing it out (so, Spoiler Warning). It’s a victim of its own marketing in a way, not to the point of completely spoiling the outcome, but enough to ensure that you have a strong chance of working out what’s going on in advance.
In trying to balance giving you a flavour of Antebellum for this review to make sense without spoiling it too heavily, I’ll describe it thusly: Eden (Janelle Monáe) is a captured slave being kept on a confederate run plantation, who is treated especially harshly by the owners of the plantation (Eric Lange & Jena Malone). However, the film also focuses on the story of Veronica (also Monáe), a successful sociologist and writer who launches a speaking tour of her book. As the two worlds seem to combine in unexpected ways, a terrible reality begins to reveal itself.
I should say upfront that this may not be a movie for everyone. Antebellum markets itself as a psychological horror/thriller, but a lot of the fear that’s generated in this film is a result of either violence or the very strong threat of violence against its main cast. There’s a lot of uncomfortable imagery and tension in this film, though it’s saved (in my view) from being pure exploitation by having a strong thematic grounding in a way that really leaves you engaged. An obvious example happens early on which demonstrates, in very clear terms, how appealing to the emotional hearts of racists is never going to be a good idea.
A large majority of violence is focused on Monáe’s characters, and she delivers a tour de force performance in the horror role. It’s nice to see her headlining films again; after two amazing performances in 2016 (in Hidden Figures and Moonlight). She’s definitely proved herself to be as good an actor as she is a singer and definitely makes for a compelling lead throughout the film, being the one constant throughout all three acts.
I mention acts because Antebellum is a very clearly marked three-act structure, more so than most stories. It’s effective as a storytelling device; the first act leaves you uncomfortable and angry, the second adds confusion and uncertainty into the mix as you wait for an explanation as to what’s going on and the third act closes it out with some nice catharsis. However, it does serve to make the audience more interested in the story twist and expected right-turn, and less in the character arcs or the world of the film that is being explored. There’s not so much detail on the surface as to the motivations or mindset of the characters that leave a little to be desired thematically, although the reasons for this begin to make sense towards the third act.
There’s a lot here symbolically and thematically that, for me at least, will make a second viewing of the film warranted. But I’m happy with that as there are a lot of subtle touches here (and I’m talking very subtle, on the level of entomology and clothing), that’ll become more obvious and meaningful on a second viewing, now that you have the whole picture. The unfortunate trade-off for that is likely to be found the second act a bit slower. It’s a mixed bag but still a powerful experience. Particularly the final few shots which, I suspect, are going to become a lot of people’s background photos on laptops, for their striking imagery and clear message.
Antebellum is an interesting film that is packed with ideas and has a lot of ambition, even if it doesn’t always hit the landing in terms of delivery. Monáe is a great actor to watch at work, and she’s backed up by contrasting and memorable performances by both Malone and actor Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Dawn, a best friend of Veronica. There’s a lot of uncomfortable material the film has to offer and your reaction will depend on how you feel the ideas justify the content. Still, as contemporary horror movies go, it feels more original and bold than many other films, which many favour over a conventionally good but standard movie anytime.
Words by Mischa Alexander