After that bold opening, we settle on the slaves who work that plantation. Eden (Janelle Monáe) is a new arrival who desperately wants to create her own Underground Railroad right off the property. She leads a disastrous escape attempt. While all slaveowners by nature were callous and cruel, these monsters take it up a notch. No slave may speak unless spoken to, and only whistling is allowed in the fields. A strange pall hangs over this plantation. To make matters even worse, the overseer (Eric Lange) and his chief lieutenant (Jack Huston) have instituted their own variant of prima nocta, in which Confederate officers may choose a slave woman to assault.
This first act of the film is both powerful and exhausting. Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz deliver an arresting look at the horrors of slavery. In the current climate of revisionist history, where Confederates get wrongheadedly realigned as populist heroes, it’s crucial to remember how just awful they really were. As a horror film, Antebellum is strongest early on: The life and death of a slave is nothing short of terrifying.
Not long after this first act, the movie makes a hard right turn. I knew nothing beforehand of this jarring plot twist, and I’m glad of it. I won’t spoil it for you, either. For better or worse, it defines the entire movie, and you can assess its effectiveness for yourself.
I don’t feel that this twist itself undermines Antebellum, just the execution of it. Outside of Monáe and a few others, many supporting black characters feel half-sketched. Their white captors never get properly explored, either. For a filmmaker, it’s an enormous gamble to whisk the rug from under your audience. Here, it’s never given a proper chance to pay off. Too many questions go answered. Too much potential gets left twisting in the wind.
And that’s especially frustrating, because Antebellum has so many strengths. Monáe is a powerhouse, supplying the film with much of its glow. Gabourey Sidibe supplies a welcome breeze of comic relief, but even she is underused. Further, the entire movie brims with Oscar-caliber cinematography, editing, and sound design.
For all its unevenness, Antebellum makes an important point: Racism is a weed that continues to thrive because we give it daylight. The only problem is that the film shirks subtlety and goes so big and broad that much of its sermon seems meant for the choir. By the finale, the filmmakers have gone completely over-the-top, diluting the impact of their intended message.
I don’t say this often, but this movie would’ve benefited from a longer runtime. A few of these characters needed a few more scenes. We should’ve learned more about the slaves and their barbarous overseers. By the film’s crescendo of violence, I needed to feel a lot more than I did. There’s a great film embedded somewhere within Antebellum. It just never gets a chance to thrive.
105 min. R.