Every now and then a film comes along with a plot twist so ambitious and outrageous, you can’t help but admire its ballsiness, even if it doesn’t fully work. Like last year’s Serenity, a sun-drenched noir starring Matthew McConaughey that left audiences in wide-eyed awe with a mid-film curveball, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum takes a huge swing-and-miss with a late reveal, but still manages to thoughtfully examine how the ghosts of America’s ugly white-supremacist history still haunt us to this day. Potent, timely, and at times unapologetically violent, the film feels like a cross between Jordan Peele’s Get Out and a M. Night Shyamalan thriller, with certain elements of Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred mixed in – there’s also a clumsy and exploitative B-movie bubbling under the surface. This is a difficult film to review without giving certain parts away, and we’ll keep it as spoiler-free as possible – those who prefer surprises might want to stop reading, avoid the trailer, and go in completely cold.
As the title suggests, Antebellum opens on a pre-civil war Louisiana plantation – a long tracking shot slowly winds through an estate, juxtaposing the idyllic (a young white girl skipping through fields) and the horrific (Confederate soldiers and slave quarters). In a slow-motion, a white man on horseback chases a Black woman running for her life, slides a noose around her neck, and throws her to the ground. This sets the stage for another agonizing 30 minutes filled with numerous acts of dehumanizing violence against Black characters, including Eden (Janelle Monáe), a slave with a plan to escape this hellhole. Audiences will breathe a sigh of relief once the second act announces itself with a jarring tonal shift that thrusts the story into present time with a hokey cellphone motif that reappears later on.
In a dual role, Monáe also plays Veronica Henley, a happily married, DC-based author on a promo tour for her new book Shedding the Coping Persona. This allows her to catch up with an old pal, the fiercely confident Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) who shows no hesitation in clapping back at a “Becky” waitress during a “girls night out” scene, but also attracts the attention of a mysterious Southern white woman (Jena Malone), a creeper who pokes around Veronica’s hotel room and sports an accent that only be described as Blanche Deveraux on a high dose of steroids. To reveal more would spoil, but shit goes down in a way that bridges the early scenes with the present while tying in the truly wild and cathartic third act that at once channels the best and worst elements of a certain sub-genre in ‘70s exploitation cinema.
The end result is a bizarre mishmash that earnestly wants to address urgent topics (white supremacy, intergenerational Black trauma), but indulges in pulpy excess while doing so. At the same time, American cinemas are chock full of escapist nonsense and there’s something clever about mass-marketing a grueling history lesson as popcorn entertainment.
Antebellum is out on digital and on-demand platforms on September 18.