If we can all agree on anything these days, it is that Janelle Monáe is totally watchable. She does double-duty in the social commentary horror movie with a twist, Antebellum, but alas is not enough to recommend the film.
If I could make a recommendation to filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz it would be this: Don’t let the studio give away the twist in the trailer. Anyone even *half* paying attention can catch the twist in the teaser, making you wonder where the film goes with that information. If you like revenge-porn, it has plenty of that, but it doesn’t really give you much else to work with.
But let’s back up. The guise of Antebellum is that you are presented with two timelines. The first 40 or so minutes introduces us to a defiant slave losing her will. Played by Janelle Monáe, the slave Eden is trying to hold on to her previous identity, but is beaten, raped, and branded into submission by a Confederate general (Eric Lange). Other slaves, especially new ones brought to the plantation, are itching to escape, but to no avail under the cruel watch of a younger, sadistic officer played by Jack Huston.
Then we see Janelle Monáe wake up in a modern bed, with a handsome husband next to her, and a cute young daughter thundering into the room to jump on the bed in delight. In this scenario, she is successful social activist author and speaker Veronica Henley. She goes to conferences where she is an on-demand lecturer and interview subject, where she meets up with her gal-pals (refreshingly funny Gabourey Sidibe, and token white friend Lily Cowles) for a night on the town. As everyone can predict (with clues and character cameos littered in beforehand), that is where things are about to go very very wrong and the mystery of the two timelines will come together. Is modern Janelle having a nightmare, or is it something else?
If I can say one thing about Antebellum, it is gorgeously filmed. The whole opening sequence—with a female slave fleeing with her life, to only be tracked in slow-motion then captured by a Confederate soldier (with a noose) on a horse—is a beautiful nightmare… from the beaded sweat on actor’s faces, to the shimmering yellow light. If the whole thing didn’t make you feel so barfy.
But as the climax of Antebellum turned into a bloodbath of vengeance, I couldn’t help but think that as much as this film aims to be a revenge film for African-Americans, I could also see it as an inspiration for racist white Southerners. Much of the language is taken from the “our heritage and culture” line of thinking of those defending the Confederate flag. Could someone watch this film and think that the premise revealed is actually a pretty good idea? Heck, I can watch these kinds of inflammatory “culture” wars on the news any night. Even though the “bad guys” get their well-deserved comeuppance in the story, it just makes me think a film like this would only energize that segment of America if they bothered to watch. And that scares me.