Opening quite effectively, we follow a little white girl in a colorful dress skipping along a “Gone with the Wind” inspired plantation in the antebellum South. The camera then begins to explore the grounds, exposing the hidden horrors.
In this directorial debut from writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (and trailers give it away, so calm down) a black woman (Janelle Monae) living in modern times, finds herself a slave trapped on a plantation. I won’t give anymore away than that, since the movie brings little more to the table than a strong premise and final twist.
Everything I found disappointing about “Antebellum”, I found in its direction.
It’s not for lack for trying. First, there are sequences here which engage on a suspenseful level. And the depiction of this radicalized “Make America Great” inspired group of bad guy characters throughout, seemed current and eccentrically familiar.
Although this is an R-rated slavery film, Bush and Renz’s depiction is tame. While one or two people are stabbed or shot, the lack of violence is startling. While I never seek out a movie clamoring to hear the N-word, the lack of realistic language used in this was noticeable. Again, the directors placed more importance on the premise than visceral authenticity. Story aside, this is an emotionless vision of slavery, which doesn’t stand up to movies such as “12 Years a Slave” or “Django Unchained”. This is only an issue because it feels as though the intent of the filmmakers was to visually get close to these modern genre masterpieces.
The protagonist is painfully one-dimensional. She is given one speech in the middle of the movie, regarding progressing feminism and racial inclusion. From that speech we are to assume everything else about her personality, since for the rest of the film she doesn’t seem to have one. Does Monae do a good job in this lead role? Sure. She’s good in everything she does. She does the most she can with this cookie-cutter depiction of a successful Black woman.
Final Thought: Seems as though the filmmakers were content with a strong premise and promise of a twist ending being the thing which carried audiences through the hour and forty-five minute runtime. It does not. It’s a slavery thriller, with little gravity. There are stakes, but it’s all surface. Bush and Renz come off as either scared or unable to push this film to its limits. A better director would have handled things with more nuance and creativity and not allowed “Antebellum” to fall so flat. It’s not a horrible movie, just mishandled. Although, this may contain the best use of yoga in a movie, ever.
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