Antebellum (Movie Review)

From the producer of 2017’s Get Out and 2019’s Us comes a historically-rooted tale of slavery and oppression, as well as one woman who has the audacity to fight to smash the system. Janelle Monáe stars in Antebellum, which arrives in your home and On Demand beginning on Friday, September 18, 2020, thanks to Lionsgate.

Obviously the writer-director team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (Kill Jay-Z video short 2017, Shame short 2018)) understands that if you’re going to make a film like Antebellum, you’d better bring your A-game! And deliver they do with an outstanding, cross-genre tale of Civil War-era slavery juxtaposed against the more subtle tactics utilized in modern day marginalization. Starring the exceptional Monáe (Hidden Figures 2016, Moonlight 2016), this is a time twisting tale that travels from a sprawling cotton plantation in the South to today. Portraying both a slave who has been ‘gifted’ the ironic name Eden, as well as a PhD in sociology who just so happens to rule the New York Times Best Sellers list, the actress takes us through two seemingly disparate situations that will eventually collide.

Antebellum still. Photo credit: Matt Kennedy

A truly epic production, Antebellum also features the acting talents of Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2014, The Neon Demon 2016), Eric Lange (Lost series, Escape at Dannemora mini-series), Tongayi Chirisa (The Jim Gaffigan Show series, iZombie series), Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings 2013, American Hustle 2013), Kiersey Clemons (Dope 2015, Sweetheart 2019), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious 2009, Empire series), Lily Cowles (BrainDead series, Roswell, New Mexico series), Marque Richardson (True Blood series, Dear White People series), Robert Aramayo (Game of Thrones series, Exit Plan 2019), T.C. Matherne (True Detective series, Godzilla: King of the Monsters 2019), beautiful little London Boyce, and many, many more.

As you should already know, the Antebellum period was a time in America’s history when a white man was allowed to own another man (or woman) simply because of the color of their skin, and being black meant that you were considered a ‘savage’—barely even human. So it goes without saying that the depictions found in the film are grotesque—women are raped and lassoed like cattle, and both men and women are burned inside a charnel house for defying their ‘owners.’ While Antebellum is not intended to be a perfect historical record, it never shies away from sharing the horrors of plantation life. In this, it is brutally and painfully honest in confronting racism and definitely not a film for everyone.

That said, attempting to slap the categorization of Thriller onto Antebellum feels, much like the slaves’ altered names, demeaning. Blending historical horrors with drama, humorous thrills (thank you, Miss Sidibe!), and grotesque chills, Bush and Renz have created an experience that will leave your mind swirling like a maelstrom above the Georgian cotton fields. And while the film is obviously a discussion of racism, then and now, there are also glances at female empowerment (particularly black female empowerment); Eugenics; the “intersectionality of race, class and gender;” the unresolved past; and a multitude of psychological themes.

Antebellum still. Photo credit: Matt Kennedy

Sadly, when William Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” in 1951’s Requiem for a Nun, he was offering a timeless statement. Case in point is Antebellum, where Bush and Renz draw enough blatant and metaphorical parallels to show us that the past has never quite gone away, at least in America. It is a pretty thought to think that we have progressed since the 1800s, but have we really? Or is our past still unresolved and therefore haunting our present?

All debate aside, Antebellum works best when you know less of the story’s workings before going into your viewing experience. But we promise that you can expect gorgeous cinematography from Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe 2016, Extinction 2018), divine costume design by Mary Zophres (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 2008, La La Land 2016), and a stellar score from Roman GianArthur Irvin (Rio 2 2014, Moonlight 2016) and Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder (Friends with Benefits 2011, The Equalizer 2014) that fuses the past and the present. In fact, there’s an elegance and richness to all of the above that believes the cruelty and the brutality depicted throughout the film, though nothing aesthetic can ever offset the heinous nature of our history.

To speak of the film’s other high points, there is it’s star: Miss Monáe. What is there that this international sensation cannot do better than all of us combined? It’s doubtful that there is anything to list. As always, the singer/actress gives a phenomenal performance, one that we hope earns her an Oscar. Elegantly translating the silent, boiling rage of a woman trapped in the chains of slavery, as well as delivering in the role of a fiercely intelligent, professional mother, Monáe straddles two unique roles inside one performance. Perfectly capable of bringing nuance or ferociousness, she shines like a gem in the starring role.

However, none of her co-stars should be overlooked, particularly Clemons and Sidibe. Clemons has been making a steady name for herself in TV and film, and her performance in Antebellum certainly proves why she is an actress to watch. Sidibe, of course, is an Oscar nominee, and a woman who absolutely lights up the screen with her infectious joy. Though she provides only a supporting role here, she does so with enough zest to be both instantly likeable and memorable, all while injecting some humor into a film that is brutal in its hard truths.

As for the male actors, Lange and Huston are given the biggest roles and the most to work with. Lange, as the nameless general, does an amazing job of being utterly reprehensible and making your skin crawl just by speaking a sentence. When he gives a speech to a tent full of Confederate soldiers and proclaims, “We are descendants of the gods,” then goes on to note that the Confederacy is fighting “to retain [their] heritage and way of life,” it’s eerie how similar he sounds to current politicos. Huston’s Captain Jasper is equally vile, displaying that both actors have an incredible range to their abilities.

Antebellum still. Photo credit: Matt Kennedy

Great acting, an intelligent and well-planned out story (with some echoes of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz), stunning visuals, and an honest look at the original sins of our nation are a lot to ask for in one film, but Antebellum delivers on all of its promises. By intermingling the past and the present, it creates a tale that never once flinches at its intended purpose: to confront systemic racism head-on.

An “of and for this moment” tale that packages so much thought-provoking material into its runtime, it easily proves itself to be the  first big-budget must-see film of 2020. Unless, of course, you are still waving the Confederate flag and supporting something that was never ‘great’ to begin with. In that case, Antebellum would be a hard no. For those that support the racial reckoning occurring at this time in history, Cryptic Rock gives Antebellum 5 of 5 stars.


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