From the Archives: Antebellum is a strange misfire

From the Archives: Antebellum is a strange misfire

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

I am going to have a very hard time talking about Antebellum for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a movie about the intersection between America’s awful history of racism and modern race relations. Tough stuff. Second, It’s a movie that hinges upon a pretty big reveal, a reveal that I won’t spoil even though I’m sure you’ve already gotten it figured out. With these limitations in mind, let’s talk about Antebellum.

Scheduled for release earlier this year, Antebellum was one of many films derailed by our friend COVID-19, and as such is now receiving a less ceremonious streaming release. It was inevitable that smaller films like this one would start getting the VOD treatment as the bigger films get delayed indefinitely and we prepare for the craziest election season in the history of the universe. While I am slightly less than lukewarm on my overall experience with Antebellum, let it be known that this film would have looked incredible on the big screen. The way that color is used throughout the film is rather striking. The plantation sequences feature a disparity in wardrobe color between the slaves and the masters, with the former wearing brightly colored gowns and the latter stuck in drab, homemade hand me downs. It’s a choice that highlights the dehumanization of slavery. In the modern scenes, it’s much the opposite. Our protagonist is now adorned so brightly that she’s the individual, while most everyone else fades together in a sea of anonymity. These choices are smart and they look great in a streaming format, but they’d be killer on the big screen. Alas, wear your masks, people.


What the film has in style, however, it loses in substance. There’s a lot going on here, but one gets the sense that the third act reveal was where this movie’s conception began. From there a script was reverse engineered, and it shows. I’ll hit you with just the basics.

The film opens in a Southern plantation. It’s exactly as horrifying as you’d expect. Slaves are regularly tortured, raped, beaten, and robbed of their dignity in every which way it can be done. It’s awful. At the center of it all we find Eden (Janelle Monáe – absolute goddamn superstar). She’s quiet and scared. She’s already been branded once, and the last thing she wants to do is get branded again. She warns a new captive to do the same, lest she be injured by their monstrous keepers. For about forty minutes, it’s pretty much non-stop brutality. While it seems to be presented in a sort of pulp fashion (this movie feels very much like a B-movie script getting an A-movie shine), I can see how this might turn a lot of people off. Short of small idiosyncrasies that I shan’t speak about, it’s “just another slave movie” for quite some time. And then one day it isn’t.

Eden closes her eyes to sleep after a particularly brutal evening with her captor and is rattled awake by her cell phone. She rolls over in her giant, comfy bed to find her loving husband With whom she has a wonderful child. This is definitely Janelle Monae, but this is not Eden, it’s Veronica, famous and beloved political pundit, who takes pride in regularly speaking truth to power. She’s moves fast and lives well, and we know she shares some sort of connection with Eden. I won’t say what.

The film moves back and forth between these two very different settings until a bold-but-dumb reveal brings it all home. In both settings the characters don’t really act like people, and talk like they’re the floating head blurbs in a middle school social studies textbook. This sounds like an insult, but in a lot of ways it’s fun. Like I said before this is undoubtedly a B-movie in A-movie clothes, and like so many films before it, it embraces this dichotomy. Add to that a pretty nutso plot, and there’s a lot of modern-grindhouse fun to be had. Unfortunately for Antebellum a lot of its imagery feels, uhhhh, off given the current state of things. But even divorced from current events, it still feels wonky. If Antebellum really leaned into its exploitative heart, and went HARD with its tone, the inherent goofiness to the cinematic stunt being pulled might really work. The bonkers nature of it could be used to flex the restraints of taste, which is what this movie desperately needs. Instead we have a bunch of stock characters bouncing off one another in a strange setting until enough time passes that the film can reveal what’s really going on. It’s not the worst case of missed opportunities (it really is respectably batty), but for a film to be so straightforward with its themes it really should’ve cranked up its tone to match. The film presents itself as Get Out when it’s probably closer to one of The Purge sequels.

Still, the tension is there. If you can get past the weird presentation, and the laborious scenes of Veronica hanging out with her “fun” friends, the stakes are high enough and decently well presented so that the final act is a passably intense chase movie, complete with a compelling hero standing up to some wickedly evil villains (including a “cranked up to 50 when 10 would do” Jena Malone). A few moments of directorial panache really shine, and the committed performances from just about everyone help to get this strange misfire across the finish line.

I can imagine a theatrical situation where this was a rousing good time, and in such a situation I’d love to watch it again. Probably won’t be revisiting it soon otherwise, but I will be listening to the exceptional score by Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder on repeat for the foreseeable future.

Antebellum is now available for digital rental.

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