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Review: Antebellum (2020)

Antebellum (2020)

Directed by: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Premise: A successful African American author (Janelle Monáe) finds herself confronting a modern incarnation of historic racism.

What Works: Antebellum has some extraordinary imagery. The film opens with an extended shot in which the camera moves through a nineteenth century cotton plantation, starting at the main house and then moving through the operations of the estate, gradually revealing the slaves and their treatment by the plantation staff. It’s an extraordinary opening and the film has some similarly striking images that juxtapose ugly violence against the beauty of the natural world. The film features a notable supporting performance by Gabourey Sidibe. She isn’t given much to do but Sidibe is very funny and punches up every scene she’s in. Antebellum is built around a major reveal. Without giving it away, the concept of Antebellum is a bold and interesting one. The movie visualizes the way in which the racism of the past survives into the present in a scenario that could have been incisive if it had been executed with any competence. 

What Doesn’t: Antebellum feels like an overextended episode of The Twilight Zone. The premise of the movie is actually rich enough to support a feature length story but the filmmakers blow it in virtually every way. Antebellum hinges on two big reveals; it starts in the middle of the action with the African American protagonist in serious jeopardy and then flashes back to show us how she got into that situation. About two-thirds of the film is spent on the introduction and reintroduction of the character and her predicament. The flashback accomplishes very little. None of the characters in the backstory come to bear on the end of the film nor does the flashback set up themes or character moments that play out later. The unusual narrative structure stalls the drama; nothing happens until about an hour into the movie. Antebellum is a story without a second act; first acts introduce characters and conflicts and third acts resolve them but the middle act of the story is where the substance of character and drama is found. Writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have effectively cut the heart out of their film. As a result, the characters have no depth and the climax has little meaning or payoff. Antebellum is clearly intended to be a political statement about the legacy of racism in America but everything about this film is obvious and superficial. Antebellum reveals nothing about racism or its legacy. The story structure eliminates any possibility for depth in character or theme and moments that are intended to be cathartic ring hollow.

DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Antebellum squanders an interesting concept on a lousy script. This movie mirrors contemporary concerns about racism and its legacy but Antebellum has nothing to say about that. It fails as cinematic storytelling and as a political statement. 

Episode: #831 (December 20, 2020)