‘Antebellum’ Poses a Provocative Premise About Slavery for a Quick Thriller 

Antebellum” wants to be a quick entertainment and a work of zeitgeist pop art at the same time. It poses an intriguing debate for film watchers: What is the difference between genuinely telling a story that taps into the times and simply exploiting those times? The movie is a collection of pieces from other movies, stitching them together with buzzwords and some visual flare. There is provocative potential at its core, just waiting for a more fleshed out story. One senses the energy of the filmmakers, and the suspicion they were stuck as to where to really go with it.

Fair warning, if you have not seen a single trailer for “Antebellum” and know nothing about its premise, then stop reading now. There is simply no way to address the movie without spoiling its key twist. The film opens with an extended sequence, mostly in slow motion, that seems to transport us back in time to the American South during the Civil War. Slaves work cotton fields, among them Eden (Janelle Monáe), who is brought back to the plantation after attempting to escape. She tries to make plans with other slaves, including Julia (Kiersey Clemons) and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) to get out. But it’s difficult to escape the roving eyes of their brutal Confederate owners such as Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and another psychopath played by Eric Lange. It’s a surreal nightmare these slaves are trapped in, especially because they are not actual 19th century slaves. Eden is actually an acclaimed professor and author, brought into this rural recreation of a past era. She is the victim of racists, such as Elizabeth (Jena Malone), who have a specific agenda for those they see as a threat.

Advertisements for “Antebellum” seem to suggest you’re in for a horror movie. Its opening scenes are indeed unnerving, because it should be obvious that the slave experience in America (or anywhere in the hemisphere) was horrific. Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz hit all the notes including Confederates roping slaves around the neck trying to escape and branding Eden with a hot iron. It doesn’t have quite the power of more serious movies like “12 Years a Slave” or “Beloved,” but with cinematographer Pedro Luque, they manage to evoke a certain place vividly. We still sense the hopelessness of being kept in chains and the pain of enduring a violent social order. We immediately sense something else is afoot with the way everyone seems to talk in modern lingo, however. Bush and Renz also get so on the nose that Confederate soldiers march in torchlight chanting “blood and soil,” an obvious reference to the white supremacists who infamously provoked violence in Charlottesville in 2017. It’s actually one of the film’s better satirical moments, hinting at how the movie could have been as daring as Jordan Peele’s now classic “Get Out.”

But alas, this is nowhere close to Peele’s brilliance. Much of “Antebellum” feels like half-formed sketches for a better movie. It’s not a horror film, or a satire, or even that much of a thriller. It is bits and pieces of all three that never complete each other. The plantation scenes feel underdeveloped, because nothing is ever truly revealed about the villains. They seem to be angry whites playing at being Confederates, but no one, not even Jena Malone’s Southern aristocrat, ever makes any kind of real statement until the very end, and even then it’s just simplistic and vague. If you’re going to make an explosive social commentary with this material, which includes topics so incendiary in American culture (the Civil War was only 160 years ago), then you better not hold back. It’s not enough to just show that slavery was a terrible experience. The story should get into the very mindset of how the villains think, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s rabid racist in “Django Unchained.” The Black characters also have very little to say in these moments, standing more as symbols than as developed personalities. 

The movie then swerves into a long middle section that reveals the plot to be in the tradition of M.Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” We see Eden, who is really named Veronica Heanly, living a privileged academic life in the city, appearing on TV debating a Fox News-style commentator and promoting her latest book on intersectionality. She has a perfect upper middle class husband and young daughter as well. But aside from shots of her Spelman College and Columbia degrees, hung above a picture of Obama before the Sphinx, Veronica speaks like she has to be in “woke” mode all the time, again never as a flesh and blood person. Then we get a sequence that goes on for too long of her doing yoga (of course) and then going to party with some friends, including Dawn, played by scene stealer Gabourey Sidibe. Keen film buffs can then guess how the rest plays out and Veronica ends up in the clutches of Confederate revivalist maniacs. As with everything else, these moments are unclear in the intention. Does Veronica represent an aloof privileged class hated by the MAGA hatters? Or does she represent Black ascendancy which racists want to stop? “Antebellum” is a lot of show and little commentary.

By the end the biggest question left is: Can you really keep a slave plantation hidden in a Louisiana national park and no one, not even tourists, notice? More provocative visually are shots of airplanes flying high above Veronica’s hell as other captives simply stare up. That one image, of how we miss what’s going on below, says more than the entire rest of the movie. And then there’s Janelle Monáe who is a fantastic actor, playing both a distraught prisoner and sophisticated intellectual with flawless strength. “Antebellum” is full of talent in every frame, but in these times of sound and fury, where terms like “civil war” are creeping back into our national discourse, it should have a much clearer voice.

Antebellum” releases Sept. 18 on VOD.