ANTEBELLUM teaser poster | ©2020 Lionsgate

ANTEBELLUM teaser poster | ©2020 Lionsgate

Rating: R
Stars: Janelle Monae, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, Tongayi Chirisa, London Boyce
Writers: Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz
Directors: Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: September 18, 2020

If ANTEBELLUM were a script pitch, the response might be, “You can’t do that.” In fact, writers/directors Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz clearly could and did do it, because their film exists. Now the questions are 1) what are they trying to say, 2) did they actually succeed in saying it, and 3) whether they should have gone with this format for their discussion.

ANTEBELLUM begins with William Faulkner’s quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The topic here, broadly, is racism, its roots in slavery, and the present-day fury of some white people that Black people have lives, identities, and careers. Few would argue that this rage still leads to atrocities and injustices perpetrated by white supremacists. All of this is certainly worthy subject matter for drama.

The trouble with critiquing ANTEBELLUM is that to dissect its larger issues is to get spoilerific. There are films that it can be compared to, but that would give the game away.

Since this is what’s in the trailer, here’s what it seems fair to disclose. Janelle Monae stars as a woman called Eden, who is sexually abused and brutalized on a plantation occupied by Confederate troops. Forty-five minutes into ANTEBELLUM, we see Monae as famed contemporary academic and author Veronica Henry, living happily with loving husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and their adorable little girl Kennedi (London Boyce) in their upscale home. There is an element in the trailer that is extremely misleading, but again, it’s not possible to say what this is without revealing a major twist.

Veronica gets a weird video call from Elizabeth (Jena Malone), a white woman who brims over with toxic micro-aggressions in the space of a few minutes. Veronica dismisses the incident, as she’s rushing to catch her plane to an out-of-town speaking engagement, where she hooks up with old friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles). There are more racist micro-aggressions from the staff of the hotel where the women are staying, although Dawn is quick to shut down any disrespect. And then …

ANTEBELLUM movie poster | ©2020 Lionsgate

ANTEBELLUM movie poster | ©2020 Lionsgate

A large part of the thriller aspect of ANTEBELLUM is trying to figure out how its pieces fit together. It’s hard to guess what’s actually going on because, at the risk of belaboring the point, it’s not going to readily occur to most people that the movie would go there.

Once we’re in the third act, though, and the movie has indeed gone there, we’re brought up short by a gigantic logistics matter, to say nothing of a plausibility problem. We suddenly have a load of questions that ANTEBELLUM addresses briefly if at all. Meanwhile, we’re expected to suspend disbelief in a way that is just about impossible under the circumstances. Had the tale unspooled in a different order, perhaps something chilling might have resulted, but that’s not what happens.

To comment on issues that won’t give anything away, the tone of the plantation sequences is uneven. We know what’s being perpetrated is horrific, and so do the filmmakers, but they depict it in a way that feels more exploitive than illustrative. The music score is so overwhelming that our instinct is to emotionally withdraw, rather than allow ourselves to react. The filmmakers also don’t seem to grasp that rape is its own very specific type of brutalization, which means that its treatment here is singularly troubling.

A more minor note is that the dialogue often leaves something to be desired. Veronica is meant to be an influential figure, but when she speaks, on television and at her lecture, she talks in generalities. We don’t feel the inspiration that she’s meant to provide.

Despite this, Monae burns with conviction in all portions of the film. Malone seethes with malevolent self-righteousness, Sidibe is endearing, and Eric Lange and Jack Huston are both suitably hateful as Confederate officers.

Audiences can overlook a lot in popcorn action, or even when elements of fantasy or science fiction are invoked. Here, however, we’ve seen rape, torture, and murder in the context of known historical atrocity. Trying to mix that with conventional entertainment simply won’t work for many viewers.

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