I was disappointed to see the first film starring Janelle Monáe in a lead role would be one of the many straight-to-streaming or ‘premium video on demand’ offerings American audiences have seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was curious what Antebellum was about, since the trailer looked interesting and more so, because it didn’t appear to give away the film’s entire plot, a rarity these days. And also just because I’ve always been a Janelle Monáe fan, I didn’t want her first big, leading role movie to get buried. Now that I’ve seen Antebellum, I think maybe that was for the best.
Veronica Henley (Monáe) is a successful author and political commentator who is happily married and has a young daughter. After a dinner out with two friends, she is seemingly time-travel-transported to the Civil War-era south on a plantation. Knowing very little about what has happened to her or how, she must find a way to somehow escape back to the modern time period before it’s too late.
Antebellum is a first feature from directing team Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and it very much feels like a first feature. It’s common in a directorial debut for the filmmaker to try to get all of their ideas and all they want to say in this one film, because who knows if they will get the chance again. As a result of this, ideas can often feel half-realized and elements can feel underexplored. And that’s the big problem with Antebellum. This film runs just over 90 minutes, and there’s so much going on and so many audacious big swings, and once it’s over, you don’t exactly know what to think. There’s so much to the concept and a lot of fascinating ideas at play, but at the same time, you don’t really get to know any of the characters very well because of the pacing issues that result from trying to cram all of this into 90 minutes.
However, at the center of the film, we have a predictably fantastic Janelle Monáe performance, and she’s constantly trying to elevate this to where it wants to be, but can’t quite reach. I wouldn’t say we got to know our main character very well at all. I described the character as an ‘author/political commentator’ and I still don’t exactly know what she does for a living. We see a law degree from Columbia University on her wall and we see her arguing a conservative talking head on a news show, and we see her giving some kind of TED Talk where she speaks in buzzwords about the patriarchy, white supremacy, and empowerment, but she never really says anything?
My point is we never really spend time with just Veronica. I’m not generally a fan of when movies shoehorn in the scene where a character has a big, emotional monologue that grounds the film’s thesis statement, but I feel like this movie could have used a scene like that. Especially since the film itself is so vague about what exactly that thesis statement is. Veronica seems like a character where terrible things are just happening to her constantly, and the film doesn’t ever really slow down to observe her in any significant way. The last 30 minutes of the film turn her into some sort of action/horror movie heroine, and if we really knew who she was by that point, her story could be far more powerful.
In the supporting cast, we have Kiersey Clemons, who is also working overtime to make the most of an underwritten role. Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles play Veronica’s energetic and supportive friends who feel like they came in from a different film entirely, but at the same time I wish we got to spend more time with them. And also we have the worst Jena Malone performance… ever? She’s a cartoon villain with the worst Southern accent I’ve ever heard, so yeah, I’m going to go with “ever.”
The TED Talk scene where lots of terminology is thrown around but nothing is really said is the perfect metaphor for this entire movie. The idea of re-framing the evils of slavery in a horror lens to make a statement about the ever-prevalent racism in the modern world seems like it would make a truly fascinating film. The director has even stated this film was influenced by a nightmare he once had, and that’s what this movie feels like. A nightmarish collection of images that don’t really fit coherently together once you’re awake and lucid. Also, not to spoil anything, but something happens in the third act that leaves the viewer with far more questions than answers and the more I think about this film, the less it makes sense.
Overall, I think there’s a lot about Antebellum that should work. We have a star who is only getting better in every role. We have a narratively daring concept by new filmmakers who seem to have something to say – or do they? The film begins with the William Faulkner quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Is that all this is trying to say? With all this horrific imagery of slavery that starts right at the top of the movie, there seems to be very little purpose. The violence we see doesn’t feel like a rallying call, it feels like exploitation. There are so many narrative elements that are introduced but never fleshed out fully, and as a result, Antebellum is a most frustrating experience.