Today, movies spotlighting black actors and storylines empowering its black characters are more important than ever. Jordan Peele broke the mold in 2017 with his directorial debut Get Out. The horror film was loved by critics and audiences alike, and managed to celebrate strong black characters skillfully. Flash forward to 2020, and to the release of Christopher Renz and Gerard Bush’s Antebellum. While it feels obvious that the two attempted to follow the same path as Peele, they instead blazed their own flawed trail.
Antebellum follows Janelle Monáe’s character Veronica, a high profile and powerful black woman. Veronica is shown straddling two different worlds: our modern day and the Civil War era. She is torn between being an esteemed activist and a slave in another world that is not yet clear. Those two worlds are intertwined in a messy and at times confusing manner that isn’t clear until the last 20 minutes.
The first perplexing choice from Bush and Renz is not introducing dialogue until the six and a half minute mark of the film. A dramatic slow-motion montage with blaring classical music trumps a foundational conversation. The images presented have no context, and spectators are left puzzled by the choice. By minute three, curiosity fades instead of building.
Attention continues to diminish for most of the movie despite conversation and a normal watch speed. For the first 70 minutes, the genre of the movie is an enigma. Is it a drama? A thriller? The answer is neither, but it’s undoubtedly not horror as anticipated. During the last 35 minutes, the film dips its toes into the horror pool, but doesn’t ever immerse itself in it. With one jump scare, minuscule amounts of blood and gore, and a muddled plot, Antebellum not fitting into the genre it promised to be is a paramount frustration.
Monáe provides a drama-heavy performance for the motion picture’s entirety. This translates into her awkwardly pushing too hard and not conveying the correct emotions that would invest spectators in her character. The fact that Monáe—an actress who has acted in several Oscar nominated films—feels misused and unlikeable may be the supreme flop of the film. Her character’s career is also indistinct, which makes it that much trickier to relate to her.
Gabourey Sidibe, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her 2009 performance in Precious, makes her presence in the picture known. This is exclusively due to the loud and obnoxious demeanor the director’s agreed her character should embody. Forgoing another one of Hollywood’s best black female talents, it becomes clearer that the directorial duo is not a match made in cinema heaven. Sidibe’s outrageous character seems to poorly replicate Lil Rel Howery’s hilariously loud sidekick role in Peele’s Get Out.
Entering the industry as a child actor in 1996, Jena Malone has been featured in numerous films since. In her 24 years of acting, countless movie fans have adored her superior acting style. Unfortunately, as demonstrated with Sidibe and Monáe, even the best actresses can find themselves floundering in a movie with poor character development. Parts of Malone’s character are clarified in the final minutes of the film, but audiences have to struggle through a spotty storyline and a strong faux southern accent before reaching that moment. By the time we learn a tiny bit more about her character, we’re tired and counting the minutes until the credits begin. Still, she fares better than other supporting players like Jack Huston, who offers nothing.
There are shots sprinkled throughout the film where dazzling cinematography is revealed. Images of bright sunsets and blazing fires are strikingly shot when they occur. Nevertheless, the classic horror movie cinematography that is expected is absent. There are no perspectives that make you wonder if there’s someone hidden in a corner and nearly jumping out, and no lingering figures in the background. This feels like another missed opportunity for the motion picture, despite cinematographer Pedro Luque proving that he could have executed these tricks effectively.
The ending of Antebellum attempts to draw viewers back in, but doesn’t quite meet the mark. A twist is revealed that viewers may have previously deduced themselves that yields countless questions. Having a twist in the film, regardless of how flimsy its structure is, offers one last opening to enter the horror genre. This is a chance that the motion picture disregards, leaving us once again wanting more. After credits begin to roll, short scenes pop up in an effort to clarify what transpires in the future, and make it appear like the story genuinely happened. This effort gives viewers more peace of mind, and reads as a first crafty choice from the duo.
Fans of movies that leave them trembling will be left wanting more, and may resort to watching a classic haunt afterwards to acquire that feeling. Horror fans have grown accustomed to exciting trailers that render lackluster films. This movie brings that same energy, but additionally feels like it is trying too hard the entire time. The end of the 105-minute picture leaves viewers with a sneaking suspicion that Bush and Renz unsuccessfully tried to copycat one of Jordan Peele’s empowering flicks. Antebellum proves that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.