Antebellum is the first movie of this era – whatever you might want to call this era that started in March – that feels like a surprise. Going in to the movie, it’s a rare occurrence where I knew absolutely nothing about it – the equivalent of having a couple hours to kill and just showing up to the theater and seeing whatever movie happens to fit into your schedule. (The difference being, in this case, a publicist from Lionsgate asked if I wanted a digital screener and I said, “Yes.”) Anyway, it’s a nice thing having no expectations – which is more and more difficult to achieve in “normal times.”
While 2020 has been a hellscape for many, Antebellum presents a hellscape of its own, in a clever and horrifying story both written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. (Though, the fact a movie called Antebellum is being released in 2020 without having to change its name to A or Movie A did tip me off beforehand that it wouldn’t be some whimsical, glossed-over look at southern culture.) The tricky part about writing about a movie like this, in which its enjoyment, I suspect, will derive from a viewer knowing very little about the actual story. But I can’t write nothing about the plot. And not too many people are going to pay money to watch a movie on demand (that was originally scheduled for theaters) that they know nothing about. So I have to give just enough plot, without spoiling any reveals or plot twists, which is what makes this movie interesting. So, ahead, I will try that, but I promise what will happen is it will make the movie sound either fairly straightforward, or lead you to believe you have it figured out when I promise you most likely don’t. I really had no idea what was actually going on until the last scene of the movie.
The opening act finds Janelle Monáe playing a slave on a southern plantation. The plantation is operated by the Confederate army, led by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and owned by Elizabeth (Jena Malone), and it is unsurprisingly brutal. Bush and Renz do a nice job here of weaving in imagery that looks sadly familiar these days as Confederate soldiers march through the night chanting about blood and soil while holding torches.
The second act opens with Monáe’s Veronica Henley waking up in the present alongside her husband and young daughter. She’s a businesswoman who is speaking at a conference that day about Black women in the workplace. There is no hint about what we saw in the first act of the film as Veronica goes about her day and hangs out with her friends at dinner (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles).
The first two acts of this film are almost presented as completely separate stories, offering relatively few clues about how Monáe’s character from the first act fits in at all with what we are seeing with her in the present world (well, “the present world” as in whatever things looked like before March because I barely remember at this point) with seemingly no memories or cares about the horrors of what we just saw.
I requested to talk to both Bush and Renz because I found what happens in the third act so fascinating. I mention this because I do think this movie does a slight cheat to get its desired effect and I’m curious if there’s more to it than just the obvious answer of, “we had to do that so you couldn’t figure out the movie until the end.” Regardless, even if it is a cheat, I’m pretty okay with its use because I don’t know if the movie works as well without it. At least, there wouldn’t be the big, “Oh, wow, okay,” moment at the end that’s so satisfying when everything comes full circle.
Antebellum was supposed to be released in theaters back in April and was part of the first wave of films that had its release date wiped out. It was kind of lost in the headlines as bigger movies like the new James Bond and the new Fast and Furious were moved. So it got lost in the shuffle to the point I didn’t even realize it was coming out soon. Again, with no expectations, this turned out to be a pretty good horror movie (that has themes that do seem to fit the moment) with a twist I didn’t see coming. (But, see, if you’ve read this far now you will have expectations.)
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