Review by Sean Boelman
Although the new socially-conscious horror film Antebellum is produced by one of the people behind such recent hits as Get Out and Us, it won’t surprise viewers that said producer is white. And while the movie admittedly does look very good, it is disturbing in all the wrong ways because of a fundamentally misguided screenplay.
Much like the aforementioned films, the script is largely dependent on a big reveal for its story to land, but what prevents this movie from achieving the same success is that the twist is entirely unsurprising. Following an author who finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the institutional racism that has been built into the identity of America since its inception, the film may have started with good intentions but turns into something almost unbearably toxic.
Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz build their thesis around comparing the traumas inflicted upon the slaves to the violence being faced by modern Black Americans and other BIPOC in America, which feels belittling to both experiences. Perhaps even worse, though, is that the movie seems to be implying that the situation today could be worse, which is such a hurtful message to be sending, especially at this time.
But even beyond the issues with the film’s content, it’s simply not a well-constructed screenplay. The pacing of the movie is pretty terrible, as it drones on and on depicting misery and brutality with only the most surface-level of justifications. And a nonlinear structure intended to continue the mystery just makes the film feel unnecessarily prolonged.
Still, the second act of the movie, which is one long flashback, is necessary because it provides essential characterization. For much of the first third, we are kept in the blind, not only about what is happening, but also who these people are. It’s obvious that Bush and Renz want this to be tantalizing, emphasizing suspense, but it is instead quite frustrating.
Janelle Monaé is an undeniably talented actress, and her performance is absolutely the highlight of the film. She brings out a surprising amount of nuance in a role that ultimately feels like an exaggerated caricature of BIPOC activists. Everyone else in the cast gives performances that range from mediocre to outright bad, including the usually wonderful Jena Malone, whose turn is laughable.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the movie, though, is that Bush and Renz show some skill behind the camera. The way in which the film is shot shows that they have the potential to make something legitimately unsettling. That said, their apparent fascination with slow motion is something that they definitely need to grow out of, as it is a very annoying tendency.
Antebellum isn’t a poorly-made movie, but its screenplay is undoubtedly among the worst and most offensive of the year. Someone needed to stop the filmmakers early in the process to tell them just how wrong this film is from a screenwriting perspective, but now they will have this major misfire as their debut.
Antebellum is now available on VOD.