Producers: Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Forman, Lezlie Wills, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz Director: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz Screenplay: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Tongayi Chirisa, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles and London Boyce Distributor: Lionsgate
Obviously inspired to some extent by Octavia Butler’s popular 1979 novel “Kindred” but not a direct adaptation of it, “Antebellum” belongs to the genre of socially-conscious horror movies now associated with Jordan Peele’s name (though there were actually plenty before them prior to his). It differs from Peele’s, though, in that the message is even blunter and the approach effectively humorless; the horror lies quite simply in a vivid depiction of the historical reality of slavery and the brutality it represented, and in the persistence of racism that has blighted American society since the Civil War.
“Antebellum” also lacks the typical surprise twist that Peele, like M. Night Shyamalan, always tries to provide. (What passes for one at the close is a pretty damp squib; while the script tries to be coy about what’s happening, it’s really abundantly clear.) The film does carry an emotional punch, though, if only on the basis of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s didactic narrative and their intense (some would say blunderbuss) execution.
The film begins with a long section set on a Southern plantation during the Civil War. Janelle Monáe plays Eden, a young slave whose attempt to escape leads to the deaths of her parents at the hands of Confederate Captain Jasper, a complete sadist played by Jack Huston with a leering sneer, but no more reptilian than Elizabeth (Jena Malone), the Southern belle of the place, whose examination of newly-arrived slaves might remind you of Josef Mengele greeting Jews at Auschwitz. When Eden refuses an order from her cruel owner (Eric Lange) simply to speak her name, he brands her.
Nevertheless Eden’s quiet resistance continues. She befriends newcomer Julia (Kiersey Clemons) and plots another escape attempt with co-fieldworker Eli (Tongayi Chirisa). But before it can occur, the scene changes with the anachronistic ring of a cell phone to the present day, where Veronica Henley (Monáe) awakens in bed beside her loving husband Nick (Marque Richardson). It’s all been a horrible dream.
An author and public speaker on racial matters, Veronica’s preparing to leave her Washington home for a trip to Louisiana for a public talk, but pauses in her preparation to leave for some time with her daughter (London Boyce) and a Skype interview with a snotty woman (Malone again) whom she curtly clicks off.
At the hotel—she’s staying, it might be noted, in the Jefferson suite, a comment on that President’s known sexual relations with slave women—Henley’s treated with barely concealed condescension by the concierge, and while she’s away a mysterious woman invades her room for purposes unknown. At a restaurant where she goes for dinner with her friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) after her lecture, the group is offered a miserably situated table until the outspoken Dawn objects.
The real drama occurs after they leave the restaurant, however. Henley is abducted and drugged, and when she awakens she finds herself back in her dream, as Eden, with the cast of plantation characters she confronted earlier. The treatment is equally brutal, with Eden/Veronica more determined than ever to escape. She and others will suffer at the hands of their tormentors in the process, but in the end Veronica will turn the tables on them and finally face off against the primary villains in sequences that are all too satisfying in terms of poetic justice (spelled out here as revenge).
There’s also a coda that explains things, to some extent at least, in a very literal way, but it might remind you of Shyamalan’s “The Village” or the recent “Most Dangerous Game” updating, “The Hunt.” It also, unhappily, includes some heavy-handed symbolism and references to current events, along with inserts within the closing credits that are too simplistically comforting. And in dropping in some hints—a quotation from Faulkner, an idea Veronica attributes to her grandmother—along the way as to how the initial act of the picture might fit into the narrative puzzle, the script creates disconcerting disconnect between the opening’s sense of mystery and the concluding act’s grounding in what’s presented as reality.
So “Antebellum” is, overall, a flawed film in terms of both structure and detail, and yet it carries undoubted power as a commentary on what’s been termed the country’s original sin. Certainly it’s well acted, especially on the female side (it is, after all, a celebration not only of black empowerment generally, but of black female empowerment in particular). Monáe fashions a shattering portrait of strength and resilience, matched on a more poignant level by Clemons as a young woman driven to the most extreme form of escape by the sexual abuse she suffers; and Sidibe adds a welcome note of sass to the mix. Even on the villainous side, Malone outshines her male cohorts Huston and Lange, though both are appropriately odious.
The picture also has visual flair, especially in the plantation sequences (the present-day ones being necessarily more mundane). Jeremy Woodward’s production design is apt, and cinematographer Pedro Luque responds with widescreen images that shimmer even in the nighttime scenes. John Axelrad’s editing is fine, though nothing can hide the segmentation of the screenplay, and special credit is due the score by Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman GianArthur Irvin, in which the repetitious violin slashes and brooding lower strings carry a Herrmannesque vibe.
Those who go to “Antebellum” expecting a conventional horror movie, even one of the Peele stripe, might be disappointed, but it’s an imaginative, if imperfect, attempt to convey the reality of racism in America from the beginnings to our days of rejuvenated white supremacism.