Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, Tongayi Chirisa
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christoper Renz
Janelle Monáe picks cotton on a plantation while Confederate soldiers on horseback keep a watchful eye. She is one of many black slaves forced into labor by her evil white captors as the red, white, and blue flag with 13 stars—a symbol of Southern pride to some and racism to others—flutters in the wind. Suddenly the silence is broken as a modern-day passenger jet flies overhead evoking a twisted Jordan Peele scenario. First-time filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz get credit for the spellbinding premise but stumble with the execution leaving moviegoers with an imitation M. Night Shyamalan flick.
Anything featuring Janelle Monáe is worth your attention. The singer-songwriter-actress elevates any project including the new thriller “Antebellum” whose heart is in the right place. The problem with the horror-thriller is the way it all comes together revealing the final piece of the puzzle. Bush and Renz edit the film in a way to prolong the mystery and keep the audience guessing but the transitions from Civil War-era to the present day are a bit jarring and the film’s big secret is revealed way too early.
The film opens on a plantation where an enslaved laborer named Eden (Janelle Monáe) has just been captured. She becomes the personal property of a Confederate officer (Eric Lange) who violently teaches her the meaning of obedience by branding her with a hot iron. He then promises to make it up to her by coming home early so she can cook him a chicken dinner. Lange, a character actor who’s appeared in “Nightcrawler” and “Wind River” brings wickedness home with a portrayal that will have you begging for retribution—the same can be said for Jena Malone as the plantation mistress or Southern belle who lets her young daughter name the enslaved women arrivals.
The story’s twist comes into play when the alarm on Monáe’s iPhone goes off and she awakens in the present day. She’s now a famous author and civil rights activist named Veronica Henley whose book “Shedding the Coping Persona” is a bestseller. When she’s not spending time with her beautiful daughter and loving husband (Marque Richardson), she’s schooling some old white dude on CNN or living her best life with besties Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles).
So, is life for Monáe’s Veronica in the present-day better than her enslaved character Eden? Physically, yes but at a time of civil unrest, Black Lives Matter, a President who seems to protect white supremacists with the “very fine people on both sides” quote, it’s evident that Veronica is still enslaved on a much higher level. It would have been great to see Bush and Renz highlight the different forms of servitude drawing closer parallels to the past and the present.
“Antebellum” features some beautiful shots and well-crafted scenes, from the opening nightmarish scenario of the Civil War to an anxiety-driven moment featuring Dawn and Sarah jamming to Lizzo’s “Juice” in an Uber while Veronica faces a more sinister experience from her hired driver as The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” plays in the background.
Gerard Bush, who attended the University of Houston, and life partner Christopher Renz craft a nightmarish film debut with a fascinating premise that falls short of its potential. The imagery in both timelines captured by DP Pedro Luque is vibrant and absorbing while Monáe delivers another first-rate performance.
Jordan Peele tackled systemic racism in the psychological thriller “Get Out” which feels like it may have inspired Bush and Renz. With a divided country, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter the directing duo seem to strike while the iron’s hot. “Antebellum” could have used a better edit and a climax that revealed its secret at the very end as opposed to the audience’s ability to figure it out too early. The slow-motion finale was a bit reminiscent of Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort” but the premise behind this timely thriller may be enough to satisfy the viewer.
Premieres Friday, September 18 on Premium On-Demand outlets.