“Things are not always what they appear to be.”
Deep down in its core, Antebellum is a vexing expression of the then and a cautionary tale of the now, and one that’s more than willing enough to daringly combine the two. To make a statement. At the same time, it’s just as easy to understand why some might loathe this exposé of harbored racist sentiments as it is even simpler to grasp how some find the film so upsettingly timely and resonant. And that’s why I stand firmly with the latter camp, because the picture and its stoic political pursuits extend beyond timeframes to reveal how viewers read the film, and makes its overall point all the more clear in the process. Either you’re with the movement or you’re against it. Antebellum doesn’t have the time for halfhearted sentiments or half measures. This is go for broke storytelling. I believe it works.
The nightmare opens with a truly dreamy one shot take, the unheeded camera pushing forward as it heads towards its final destination, navigating the long landscape of a Southern plantation, a place that’s Heaven to few and Hell to most. The haunting and stringy score from Roman GianArthur & Nate Wonder incites terror and an out of date decorum with their dark take on classic Baroque melodies. Begrudgingly dancing along to the theme is Eden (Janelle Monáe), as we finally come to know her in a moment of monstrous pain, who wakes up slumped over a horse. She clearly doesn’t know where she is or how she got there, and the silence demanded by the white slave owners only fuels the mystery more. Is this a body swap scenario, maybe a story with a time travel bend? It could have been, but Antebellum proves to be smarter than those typical conventions, and is a movie made with gusto and gumption.
With the abrupt change of scenery in the second act, seemingly shifting to the present where the renowned sociologist Veronica Henley (still Janelle Monáe) is spooked by ghosts of her ancestor’s past, it’s so very clear that co-writers/directors Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz wanted to take a rather massive risk with the hope that audiences would play along and understand their reasoning. That the mystery behind the movie is in fact the gambit itself, designed and executed as a means of carefully speaking about racial tension and societal divide without preaching to them from a pulpit. The gross effects of overt racism – both literal and psychological – are hard to stomach, and Antebellum forces us to feel them. You’ll cringe, wince, cast your eyes aside and clench your fists. It’s visceral and vital, and one of the most memorable films I’ve seen this year.
Antebellum begins by issuing a warning. William Faulkner is quoted in the open, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Neither are hate, ignorance, or intolerance. Maybe some of the poor reviews come from critics who feel as though the film hijacked the current state of the world and sensationalized bigotry and prejudice. That’s a fair cause for concern, albeit a half-baked one, because while I’ve never seen a film exactly like Antebellum, it’s obviously a legacy picture ponying on the back of Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone run. Even the title of Antebellum – a word that literally defines America’s recurring racist sentiments prior to the Civil War – is an indicator that this won’t be bound to the present, but might be a potent potion made up of yesterday’s anger and tomorrow’s toxic hangover. Antebellum delivers a deep dagger, takes a sharp twist, and slowly retrieves its bade backwards in one swift pull. Its voice is loud, its defiance is strong, and the rousing final image is indelible. This is pulp fiction with a brain and a beating heart. A modern cult classic has been born.
“Sometimes, what looks like anger, is really just fear.”
Rating: 4 out of 5