Sometimes there is just a world of difference between concept and execution.
“Antebellum” stars Janelle Monáe as a woman who must escape a slave plantation she is being held captive at. Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons and Gabourey Sidibe also star while Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz write and direct.
Like many other films, this was set to be theatrically released earlier this year but was later delayed and will now be a video-on-demand release. I was really looking forward to it after a short and moody trailer, which when partnered with producer Sean McKittrick, gave a “Get Out” vibe. And while “Antebellum” delivers on the creative premise the trailer set up, it leaves more to be developed when you peek behind the curtain.
Janelle Monáe is quietly one of the better actresses working today, delivering sensitive work in “Moonlight” and arguably the strongest performance of “Hidden Figures.” Here, Monáe gets to play both strong and confident, as well as subdued and terrified. There are a few moments of over-acting, but I would attribute that more to direction of the scene than Monáe’s acting abilities.
There are a handful of other actors who show up for a few scenes, but none of them are really noteworthy outside Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe plays Monáe’s loud-mouthed friend, and she is just such an annoying character (I have to imagine on purpose) that I really was put-off when she showed up.
Shot in Louisiana for about $15 million, the film looks pretty good, including a nice tracking shot around a Civil War-era plantation to open things up. The score by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur is also solid, with a nice blend of anxious and haunting.
Where the film flounders most is the screenplay, written by Bush and Renz. This marks the duo’s feature directorial debut as well as their first script (they have made a career in music videos), and while it is far from the worst freshman effort, the film’s biggest weaknesses lie at the feet of these two. I can’t really say what my issues are here without getting into spoilers, but I will say the film has a twist that really isn’t all too twisty, and then they make almost no attempt to flesh out exactly *how* something like that could happen. They also break things up into three distinctive acts, and they just don’t really mesh well. Bush and Renz clearly had a vision they wanted to put on screen, but seem to have struggled on how exactly to make them all work.
The film also offers social commentary about modern race relations, but I think it doesn’t get much beneath surface-level, nor does it use genre blending like “Get Out” to start a discussion. Plus, this was shot in May 2019 and intended to come out this past April, both before the resurgence of the race dialect and issues that have boiled to the surface in our country in recent months. I don’t exactly think “Antebellum” will start a discussion or hold a mirror up to society as much as just have people go “yup, racism is bad and slavery was an atrocity, agreed.”
“Antebellum” features quality production value and a strong central performance from Janelle Monáe, but the inability to really flesh out its premise or fully deliver on either thrills, horror or uncomfortable truths make this one a bit of a disappointment, but maybe still worth checking out if you check your expectations at the door.
Critic’s Rating: 5/10.
“Antebellum” is available to rent via VOD starting Sept. 18.