Heh, we know what you might be thinking. Is this movie a documentary about the band… Lady Antebellum? I mean, if we’re getting one documentary about a certain K-Pop group in cinemas this week, why not one about a country band?
So, the short answer to that question is “O’ course not, sugah“.
Just take a look at the clearly-inspired-by-Silence-of-The-Lambs poster right here. We don’t think Lady Antebellum would appreciate a Hannibal Lecter-like figure to serve a kiss on their lips while munching on some fava beans.
Jokes aside, if you were unaware of the significance of the title, it has a much more grave connotation than what many of us believe it is. As much as we have been entertained by the lovely melodies of the said band, this is in no way, a tune of passion. On the contrary, the Antebellum makes for a haunting requiem in the history of the United States. A Latin term meaning “before, or existing before a war” (the American Civil War in this case), the period was a boomin’ time in the late 1700s for industrial growth and the economy in the Southern states. However, that came at a cost. That cost was slavery.
Of course, the issue of slave-owning became a point of contention between the Northern and Southern states, with abolitionists and apologetics butting heads on the ethics of such a practice. This eventually escalated into a full-fledged war in the middle of the 19th century, effectively ending the Antebellum period.
So, while the word might seem pretty and has an air of pleasantness to enunciating such, its historical connotations aren’t as sweet. As a matter of fact, the aforementioned country band received a whole lot of flak amidst the Black Lives Matter/George Floyd protests this year. Consequently, they dropped the ‘Antebellum’ from the name, opting instead for a single vowel to replace the latter word.
Aight. Let’s move on from talking about country, that little stroll past history, and get to the deets of this movie, shall we?
Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz make their feature directorial debuts, stepping up from directing shorts and music videos (fun fact: they directed the MV for Khalid and Normani’s “Love Lies”). Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight”; “Hidden Figures”) stars as the female lead, marking the first time she is headlining a film after several years of appearing as a supporting figure in acclaimed highlights. Rounding up the supporting cast are Jena Malone (“Donnie Darko”), Kiersey Clemons (“Scoob!”), Jack Huston (“The Irishman”), Eric Lange (“Nightcrawler”), and Gabourey Sidibe (“Tower Heist”).
The premise and concept of the movie itself are intriguing. Framed as a horror outing, it focuses on a woman, having to live in two different realities. One is set in the present day, and the other in the harsh and brutal air of an Antebellum South plantation. Now, this raises some questions. Is it the same person in both eras? How is she in both periods at the same time? Is this some sort of “Cloud Atlas” situation?
We went into this movie blind. Packed in my mental briefcase, we only had the knowledge of other films depicting slavery such as “Harriett” or “12 Years A Slave” or “Django”. So, we did not know what to expect.
From the start, the film thrusts the viewer into the contrasting atmosphere of the Confederate estate. We see both sides at play. The elite plantation owners riding on horseback with their lassos and whips in hand… And the slaves, standing at attention in front of those freshly cleaned white cotton drapes. The audience distinguishes between the ant and the boot from the get-go and is made crystal clear of one’s dominance over the other.
And oh, the movie doesn’t hold back when it comes to the horrors of such a custom. We see the outright assertions of authority upon these slaves, be it the brutal thrashings, brandlings, and other forms of heinous crimes against humanity. The slaves are prohibited from speaking unless their White owners permit them. There is absolutely no refrain in making sure that the audience is petrified by these acts as portrayed by the performers on screen. The tension builds consistently for the protagonists as they bide their time, enduring this hell patiently in search of a perfect opportunity to escape.
Janelle Monáe plays Eden, a leader-type figure within the list of subordinates. Like the others, she too has experienced her fair share of whippings, a crude branding, and other forms of persecution. Besides, due to her being a woman, she is sexually assaulted countless times at night by one of her despicable male masters brought to life by Eric Lange.
Comprehending the consequences of non-compliance, Eden remains relatively composed, treading through daily adversity in hopes that a perfect opportunity will present itself, leading up to an inevitable escape. However, a wedge in the routine comes in the form of Kiersey Clemon’s Julia, who shows up as a new slave on the plantation.
Julia is one who does not believe in the perfect opportunity to strike. She’s desperate to regain her freedom for a perfectly good reason, confronting Eden as to why there has been no action, and just a whole lot of biding. How much longer were they willing to wait before more of their brothers and sisters got killed?
That answer does not come right away.
Something rather jarring and unusual happens right in the middle of the narrative. After all that pent up pressure bombarded upon the characters, the elongated band snaps. For the first time, the audience gets to breathe… rather slowly.
The 21st-century leaps into full view as we witness Monáe embrace a different personality altogether, one that has a beautiful home and shares a life with her husband and daughter. However, she has more freedom and more of a voice and than her 18th-century counterpart. She garners respect from the people around her and plays a significant role as a public advocate against racial and gender biases. Her life… is seemingly perfect.
While we would place a gag on ourselves here and refrain from giving away any more plot details, we cannot say the script maintains its stability from this point onward. Some scenes seem to alter in tone such as one particular sequence which was made to allude to the creepy twin girls in “The Shining”. That was relatively strange. The change of pace and setting was an interesting creative choice, but the developments leading up to the climax did crumble under the weight of what it was going for. It made us realise the inconsistencies that arose from such a decision, as the conflicting elements at play became more apparent.
Now, don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that the abrupt change of pace was bad, and to be honest, we quite like the shakeup. Nevertheless, whatever transpired after that made us think twice about the relative authenticity that it set out for. There is a lot, and we mean about a good 20 to 30 minutes of narrative fodder, in which you see the characters do… stuff… Yea. Some lines appear to be significant to the themes and plot later on, but even if you take out this portion of the movie, it would probably work better due to the enigma that would be created from doing so.
And then, there’s another twist by its third act, which if you pay attention, would have seen coming a mile away. Marred with some questionable dialogue and acting, the climax was a little of a doozy but somehow centres itself with an emotionally uplifting sequence by its end, balancing itself out.
The movie circles on the famous William Faulkner quote “The past is never dead, it’s not even past” and frankly it does manage to get that point across right to its climax. The problem is that there is a certain disposable amount of fodder to throw you off, along with a twist that would probably have made sense if it was set on another planetary body due to how the characters trudge along and do certain questionable things. Renz and Bush, who were also writers for the film, probably got too carried away with this concept that they failed to see as to whether the idea would gel by its third act or not.
Thematically speaking, if we were to disregard real-world inconsistencies and exclude any over-the-top circumstances, it’s pretty sound in what it wanted to promote: the endless plight of a community regardless of the era they were in. It aptly explains that the past somehow bleeds into the present no matter what preventive measures have been set up to mitigate such. That history is doomed to repeat itself in some form.
Janelle Monáe’s performance here is probably one of her best. She has consistently churned out great work but in “Antebellum”, she gets to play two characters. She rises to the occasion in both situations, playing the modern writer who gives inspirational speeches. There is queenlike empowerment in her (which somehow reminded me of Angela Bassett). On the flip side, Eden, while not the most ideal form of empowerment, is also brilliantly portrayed. Monáe provides a great display of the pain and torment to the leader-type character, even though she is given minimal lines to speak.
Another standout performance comes from Gabourey Sidibe who was a much welcome dose of comic relief during the middle of the film. While it can be said that her role was essentially inconsequential to the plot, she did exude a welcome sass whenever she was on screen. Besides, the White masters were truly over-the-top caricatures but we believe actors Jack Huston and Jena Malone did so with fair levels of ferocity and unloving viciousness to provide what was required to make them contemptible villains.
The surface shimmer of this arthouse piece is how well-managed the cinematography is. If it isn’t focusing on close-up shots of the slaves and their plight expressed on the shape of their brows, we are treated to silhouettes contrasted against the apricot sunset, tilling the soil as their masters gaze upon their work. There’s a great use of unsettling and dour imagery to instil a queasiness as the story progresses. The utilisation of slow-motion at the climax was also very effective in expressing the arduous battle that the characters had gone through right up to the end.
Some brilliance also peppers the film’s opening in which it utilises a tracking shot which goes on for about 5 minutes or so. There is little to no dialogue and is a device to immerse the viewer into the Antebellum arena. From it opening with a saturated shot of a little girl prancing alongside some docile steeds, the colour steadily fades frame by frame as Confederate soldiers march by, slaves come into view as they work on the cotton fields and barns. We see the scene gradually devolving slowly into more madness as the true dirt and grime of the situation digs itself out of the grave.
The score of Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder was also key to bringing a thrilling mood to this film as they provide the necessary strings and hollow ghosts for a relatively eerie experience.
So, yeah, there truly is a lot to like about “Antebellum” and it’s a shame that somehow the ideas get lost in translation during the second and third acts. In some manner, this feature’s concept was akin to Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller “Get Out”, but not executed as well as the said film. It’s due to “Antebellum” feeling like two different movies, which we thought was completely fine until they decided upon that peculiar twist at the end.
Indeed, while we thought the narrative execution was not as good as it could have been, we do believe that “Antebellum” was one heck of an experimental start for the director duo. Bush and Renz displayed a great deal of heft to the craft of their sequences, and it would be interesting to see where they take this next.
Just maybe, they should leave the writing to someone else?
“Antebellum” is currently playing in theatres nationwide. The film is rated 18+ for strong language and violence.