(director/writer: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz; cinematographer: Pedro Luque; editor: John Axelrad; music: Nate Wonder/Roman GianArthur ; cast: Janelle Monáe (Veronica/Eden), Eric Lange (The General / Senator Denton), Jena Malone (Elizabeth), Jack Huston (Captain Jasper), Kiersey Clemons (Julia), Gabourey Sidibe (Dawn), Lily Cowles (Sarah), Marque Richardson (Nick, Veronica’s husband), London Boyce (Veronica’s daughter), Robert Aramayo (Daniel), Tongayi Chirisa (Eli-Professor Tarasai); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Forman, Lezlie Wills, Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz; Lionsgate; 2020)
“A provocative but crass slavery drama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz are co-directors and writers in their feature film debut of this exploitation gimmicky film about slavery. They deliver a provocative but crass slavery drama that takes three acts to tell us slavery in the south was an evil institution, one that was a stain on America and caused a permanent division in the country. The manipulative film lacks emotional depth, character development, logic or subtlety to be taken seriously as drama, as it attempts to connect the past with the present in a misguided effort that is more muddled than lucid and meant more for shock value than anything else.
It opens with a pertinent quote by Faulkner that: “the past is never dead—it’s not even past.”
It tells us The Founding Father’s by allowing slavery made a mistake the country is still paying a big price for as an original sin.
The filmmakers open during the Civil War, on a Louisiana plantation, to show slaves who attempt to escape are ordered whipped by the Confederate General (Eric Lange), who owns the plantation, and the sadist Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) who keeps the slaves in line.
There’s a dual narrative afoot. One of the slaves, Eden (Janelle Monáe), undergoes a number of demeaning incidents but appears as a successful black woman in modern times as Veronica (also played by Monáe). She is a respected author of wealth, happily married to Nick (Marque Richardson) and with a daughter (London Boyce). She also has a Ph.D in sociology. Her latest work tells of the progressive notion of “liberation over assimilation” for black women. The author while on a book tour is provoked in a Skype phone call by a cartoonish racist white southern belle named Elizabeth (Jena Malone), who in the past sketch was the mistress at the plantation.
“Antebellum” veers between past and present, with the plot influenced by supernatural events. The filmmakers come up with a mundane plot twists, one that does little to better the plot. It tells us our ghosts are still filled with hate–which I believe is a correct assumption, but is clumsily executed into the story.
The film can’t overcome that it lacks substance and has nothing to say that is new about racism. We only know Eden through her assaults. Fellow new slave Julia (Kiresey Clemmons) is also only viewed by how she’s abused on the plantation.
In modern times, Veronica is treated as someone who is more than able to handle herself in white society. We know her success through her material gains–a luxury home, her wonderful family, good friends (Gabourey Sidibe & Lily Cowles) and a posh lifestyle (takes yoga lessons).
Though visually satisfying, it bogs down without saying anything fresh about slavery except pointing out the still hidden racism in American life. It fills the screen with too many caricatures and cliches, and is an absurd film that foolishly asks if things really have changed much racially over time (take a guess!).
REVIEWED ON 9/27/2020 GRADE: C