For its first 40 minutes or so, Antebellum is virtually indistinguishable from a standard historical drama about the Civil War-era South. On a cotton plantation somewhere in the South, there are cruel masters who berate and abuse the slaves, while the slaves conspire in hushed whispers with each other to plan an escape that may lead to their deaths. Soldiers from the Confederate army camp nearby, celebrating a recent battlefield victory against the Union. Slave Eden (Janelle Monae) picks cotton in the fields, and when new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons) starts talking about rebellion, Eden shuts her up as quickly as possible, lest they both suffer a beating (or worse) from sadistic overseer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston).
There are small details that seem slightly off in this first segment, but if you haven’t experienced any of Antebellum’s spoiler-filled marketing campaign, you probably wouldn’t expect the shift that comes in the next act, when Eden is suddenly Veronica, an accomplished author, activist and cable-news pundit in modern America, with a loving husband and a cute little daughter. Writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz spend half an hour slogging through Veronica’s dull, generic back story, leading up to an obvious twist that then fails to pay off in any interesting way in the final act.
Antebellum utterly fails its own bold premise, coming off like a shrill, tone-deaf take on the current culture wars, similar to the recent smug thriller The Hunt, rather than a sophisticated mash-up of genre story and social commentary like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The pacing is abysmal, completely halting the momentum of the story for the suspense-free segment on Veronica’s modern-day life, only to circle back to a point that renders that entire stretch of the movie useless. The Southern slave-owner characters (including Jena Malone going all the way over the top with her “I do declare!” accent) are cartoonish for plot-related reasons (albeit flimsy ones), but Eden/Veronica is just as one-dimensional, spouting meaningless progressive talking points in her entirely unconvincing job as an author and political commentator.
The entire movie is built around the poorly handled twist, without any insights about modern political discord or race relations. Monae imbues the main character with fierce determination at the right moments of the story, but she’s still more of a symbol than a person, without an interior life to reflect the horrors of what’s happening to her. A movie that more seamlessly integrated the two aspects of the narrative could have built up its protagonist more effectively, but Bush and Renz create such a stark divide between the character’s stories as Eden and Veronica that it’s sometimes hard to see them as the same person.
Bush and Renz come from a background in fashion and advertising, and they bring that sense of visual flair to their feature debut. Antebellum looks beautiful, although that sometimes means it resembles a slavery-themed fashion spread in a glossy magazine. The movie opens with a meticulously orchestrated single-take tracking shot throughout the plantation, the kind of showy technique that announces the filmmakers as flashy stylists, although it also effectively and efficiently establishes the location and what goes on there. The storytelling is never as assured as the composition, though, and the style only carries the movie so far. It’s provocative and striking at first, but ultimately can’t use its hot-button concept to say anything meaningful.