Movie Review: The beautifully-filmed ugly history of “Antebellum”

“Antebellum” is a gorgeously-shot but dawdling and ditzy parable on race and “the patriarchy,” told in three acts.

First-time feature writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz make the most of their Big Chance, opening their film with an impressive-if-not-quite-dazzling five minute tracking shot, lighting and framing their recreations of the Civil War South with “Gone With the Wind” Technicolor care.

But as screenwriters, their First Best Destiny might be keeping a script doctor on speed dial. Their “mystery” isn’t nearly mysterious enough. And that three act structure makes for a grim, distressing and lumbering opening, a tense and bloody finale and a middle act — the one set in the modern day that “explains” what’s going on — that is as straight-up hackwork, a Tyler Perry fashion show meant to add dread but where rolling one’s eyes is the only proper response.

Janelle Monaé stars as Eden, a slave on a plantation in Civil War Lousiana or Mississippi, from the looks of it. We meet her in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt by some of her fellow hostages. She is tortured by “Him” (Eric Lange), the “general” in charge of this plantation, General Foghorn Leghorn, from the sounds of him.

“Ah often PONDER the DEPTHS of yo’loyalty,” he purrs, as he metes out torture that he calls “punishment.”

Somehow, “Eden” has to escape this, and we get hints of how she might affect that get-away, here and there.

But there’s something very strange about this plantation. It’s in the cotton fields, and what’s done with the crop. It’s in the way there’s a full company of Confederate soldiers, some with repeating rifles, stand guard. They like to march by torchlight.

“Blood and soil,” they chant, just like the Nazis in Charlottesville and your average Proud Boys/Trump rally.

Veronica (Monáe) awakens from this nightmare in her posh house, with her loving husband and adorable little girl. Her life as an author is modern and scheduled — from her speeches, book-signings and TV appearances debating right wing Congressmen to her personalized yoga instruction. 

But there’s danger in that TV debate, and menace in the drawled interrogation of a video call from this odd David Duke blonde “journalist” (Jena Malone).

Never you mind. Veronica’s “advice to the lovelorn” author pal (Gabourey Sidibe) shows up, so let the fashion show, tsunami of circle-jerk compliments and slang and flashy-fleshy girls-night-out begin.

What we see here and hear in the best parts of “Antebellum” are horrific and as topical as the evergreen William Faulkner quote that opens the film.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Black lives then and Black lives now are perceived as a threat by some, a threat worthy of violence.

But this isn’t a horror movie, isn’t a work of speculative fiction and doesn’t have much “Get Out” in it, which is precisely the way it’s been sold since it was announced.

The middle act kills the “thrills” in “thriller.”

It’s lightly-preachy, and the sermon is on point. The violence is shocking and personal.

Monáe is fine as the lead, charismatic even when you feel the script is letting her down — arch dialogue, situations as obvious plot devices. Sidibe is playing a caricature of the “Byeeeee– good MORN-tink” Black girlfriend in a hundred other films, Kiersey Clemons is like most of the supporting cast — barely in it — and Malone is a drawling cartoon.

The screenplay’s artifice is too obvious. How you take it and take to it comes down to one image, the closest you’ll get to a “spoiler” in this review — a cell phone in a saddlebag.

Sometimes the ridiculous, over-the-top and overly articulate “gentility” of Deep South speech is there for a reason, and isn’t the product of some misguided Brit whose only experience of the dialect has been old Hollywood movies.

Sometimes, the parable gets lost in peripherals — making every shot perfect, making every female character a clothes horse.

And sometimes the hype isn’t appreciated because it’s been a bait and switch all along.

MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references

Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Gabourey Sidibe, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Eric Lange and Tongayi Chirisa.

Credits: Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:45

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