“Antebellum” begins with one brilliant tone-setting tracking shot. Co-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz start with their camera gazing upwards as rays of sunlight beam through treetops draped in Spanish moss. The camera pans down to an elegant plantation house, a young girl skipping in the front yard picking flowers as horses graze on the lush green grass. It’s a beautiful portrait.
But as the camera moves the idyllic storybook facade gives way to the ugliness of reality. It slowly winds through the plantation’s slave quarters as Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur’s searing score steadily escalates. The camera settles on an act of unspeakable violence – a jarring and unsettling moment that instantly and firmly plants our feet in Bush and Renz’s world.
With that gripping opening Bush and Renz provide one of the best 10 minute stretches I’ve seen in a movie all year. And it gets “Antebellum” off on a strong foot. Genre-wise their feature film debut resembles Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” minus the plot holes and freshman filmmaker miscalculations. Both are horror movies but not in the traditional sense and both tell stories with strong social consciences.
“Antebellum” stars Janelle Monáe who gives two dramatically different yet equally compelling performances. We get our first glimpse of her during the opening tracking shot as she is brought to a Louisiana plantation. Six months pass and we see her picking cotton under the eye of an abusive white foreman (Jack Huston). ￼We learn that her name is Eden and she is the chosen favorite of a possessive ￼confederate officer￼ (Eric Lange). Through Eden’s eyes and the film’s unflinching sense of conviction we see plantation life often in visceral detail.￼￼
Suddenly, at around the 40 minute mark a cell phone rings, shattering our sense of time and transporting us to modern day. The phone is answered by Veronica Henley (Monáe’s other role), an acclaimed author and activist living lavishly with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and their young daughter Kennedi (London Boyce). Veronica is a picture of success, self-made and a go-getter. You could say she’s living a version of the “American Dream” but one built on shaky ground – something that becomes clearer as the movie progresses.
It would be a disservice to reveal any more. All I’ll say is Veronica flies to New Orleans to deliver a lecture on black empowerment. While there Bush and Renz (who also penned the script) slyly begin to connect the narrative dots. There is a time or two when Veronica’s storyline strays a bit. Take a dinner sequence with her and two friends played Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles. On its own the scene is well written and performed. But within the movie itself, the nearly seven minute sequence grinds the tension-building to a halt. There are also tonal issues as the scene focuses almost entirely on Sidibe’s character who plays a tad too much like comic relief.￼
But it doesn’t take long for “Antebellum” to get back on track. Bush and Renz craft a nail-biting final act that illuminates the two stories before arriving at its satisfying conclusion. It’s not that hard to pick up where things are going well before the big ending. But watching it all come together and seeing the details cleverly ironed out makes for a worthwhile payoff. And it doesn’t hurt to have such a brilliantly multifaceted performance from Monáe who finally gets her first (and much deserved) lead role. She works with such authenticity and commitment which proves to be invaluable to both Eden and Veronica.
“Antebellum” falls among the ever-growing list of movies affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was originally slated for a theatrical release before ￼finally landing on VOD this weekend. While I wish it could have gotten the big screen treatment, I’m glad people finally get the chance to see it. “Antebellum” deserves an audience, not just for being good genre entertainment (which it is), but also for the richness of its underlying message. It tells a penetrating story that will leave you primed for a second viewing. “Antebellum” premieres September 18th on VOD.￼
VERDICT – 4 STARS