The ending of “Antebellum” hits you over the head with its messaging: that there are many people in American, particularly in the South, who would like to see the country return to the “good old days”—the good old days to them being the days of slavery and plantations. It even more so hits you over the head with the message that “slavery is bad”—which, true, but also, duh. The problem with “Antebellum” is that, despite how real and how scary the issues it depicts are, it doesn’t back up the terror with anything of substance, resulting in a film that aims to provoke rather than inform or move its viewers.
“Antebellum” is written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, whose film opens on a Louisiana plantation. I’m not sure I can talk about the film further without discussing the story’s twist, so beware of spoilers below if you actually care about watching this movie.
At the plantation, we follow a slave called Eden (Janelle Monáe), who is beaten brutally and watches as the slaves around her are either violent tortured or killed by the Confederate soldiers who run the plantation. So after spending some time in this environment it’s jarring when, as Eden lies awake at night, we suddenly hear a cell phone ringing. It’s at this time that we flash back to a scene set in the present day. Veronica (Monáe) is a successful author with a husband and young daughter who is leaving for a book tour in Louisiana. After a disturbing online meeting with a white woman named Elizabeth (Jena Malone), Veronica is later stalked and kidnapped by Elizabeth and her husband Jasper (Jack Huston). She wakes up at the plantation we saw at the start of the movie—actually a sight for Civil War reenactments where guests can recreate those aforementioned “good old days”—and spends the rest of the movie trying to escape.
The twist in “Antebellum” may be clever, but the film is otherwise not as smart as it seems to think it is. A ton of exposition isn’t necessary to feel the terror it depicts, but every character and every situation it presents is shallow. Bush and Renz seem obsessed with showing the violence inflicted on slaves, but little else. The result is a disturbing parade of Black individuals portrayed as victims of violence as a way of driving home the film’s thin but obvious messaging, with a finale that lacks the triumphant feeling it’s clearly going for and feels like it cleans everything up a little too neatly.
Malone and Huston are almost laughably bad (but maybe that’s just they’re obviously exaggerated white plantation overseer characters talking), although “Antebellum” does have a couple of bright spots thanks to the talented Monáe and a supporting cast that includes Gabourey Sidibe as Veronica’s irreverent friend Dawn (Sidibe is wonderful, but her character doesn’t serve much purpose here), Kiersey Clemons as another kidnapped slave named Julia, and Eric Lange as the owner of the plantation. Monáe and the rest of the cast deserve better material than “Antebellum,” however. The moments where “Antebellum” works the best are when it subtly yet clearly portrays the prejudice that permeates so many situations today, and that even the most well-intentioned individuals can be unaware of when they aren’t the target—just look at the dinner scene between Veronica, Dawn, and their white friend Sarah (played by Lily Cowles). But these moments are few and far between. By refusing to let its characters—particularly its Black characters, who are undergoing a truly traumatic, life-altering event—really sit and live in their emotions, they are treated more like props than living, breathing humans. And that is not good representation.
“Antebellum” is now available to rent or buy on all digital platforms. Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated R.