‘Antebellum’ is a confident piece of art unafraid to make viewers squirm with discomfort

Emilee Geist

Janelle Monáe delivers her best performance to date in the painful, powerful “Antebellum”Matt Kennedy The past is never dead. It’s not even past. It’s fitting that “Antebellum,” the new gut-punch social horror thriller, opens with William Faulkner’s famous quote, which feels eerily prescient given the turbulence currently gripping America. But […]

Capture AntebellumJanelle Monáe delivers her best performance to date in the painful, powerful “Antebellum”Matt Kennedy

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

It’s fitting that “Antebellum,” the new gut-punch social horror thriller, opens with William Faulkner’s famous quote, which feels eerily prescient given the turbulence currently gripping America.

But nothing can prepare you for the opening scene, a single take, that finds writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz using their camera like a spying bird, swooping up over a working plantation, spying on the white leaders herding groups of Black slaves with violence and vulgarities, until a terrified woman makes a break for freedom and is viciously dispatched.

Antebellum
4.5 out of 5 stars.
Run Time: 105 minutes
Now streaming

It’s a harrowing introduction, and for the first 40 minutes Bush and Renz refuse to let up, painfully and painstakingly recreating a moment in our history that far too many people still refuse to acknowledge as wrong.

They introduce Eden (Janelle Monáe), whose presence on the plantation gives other slaves hope, even as she suffers physical and sexual abuse nightly at the hands of her owner, Senator Denton (Eric Lange).

Then a cell phone rings. And Eden wakes up as Veronica Henley, a renowned author and civil rights advocate, in present day.

It’s a jarring, disorienting swerve, the first of two such pivotal moments, that Bush and Renz use to keep viewers unsure not just about what’s happening, but when it’s happening.

Veronica, her husband and her young daughter sit for breakfast, even as Veronica’s publicist is calling to remind that she’s late to leave for a flight to a conference. When a morning news show airs a clip of a contentious interview between Veronica and a white historian, her daughter Kennedi innocently asks, “Mommy, why was that man so angry?”

“That’s a really great question,” Veronica says. “Sometimes, what looks like anger is really just fear. Things are not always what they appear to be, baby.”

And that’s when “Antebellum” gets really weird and really potent.

A Skype interview that she believes to be about her newest book turns awkward and menacing. The caller, Elizabeth (Jena Malone), who viewers saw earlier on the plantation with Denton, tells Veronica that Kennedi will “make the perfect little companion for my daughter.”

When Veronica arrives for the conference, she’s put in the hotel’s Jefferson Suite. When she and her friends Dawn (a scene stealing Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) go out to eat, Veronica is rattled by a braying horse outside the restaurant. Then the hostess seats them at the very back of the ritzy restaurant next to the kitchen, which draws Dawn’s outrage. Later, a strange man sends drinks to their table, setting up a second powerful rebuke by Dawn.

Such moments serve a purpose, and they land with precision to effectively decimate a host of dog-whistle stereotypes that Black women still contend with to this day.

The second game-changing swerve arrives shortly after dinner, as Eden and Veronica switch places once again. Or do they?

It’s virtually impossible to discuss what happens from this point on without spoiling “Antebellum,” and doing that would be a huge disservice to the thoughtful effort that Bush and Renz put into creating this visceral, visionary work.

As a genre film, “Antebellum” takes aim at traditional tropes and destroys them much like one of Dawn’s poignant proclamations. But, as a social statement, it resonates well beyond horror’s borders.

Not only does “Antebellum” stand in stark contrast to other films and television shows from decades past to recent years that seemingly helped whitewash the awful reality of slavery, but it makes crystal clear that such transgressions never truly ended, they just became more skillful in disguise.

That “Antebellum” works so well on multiple levels should scare anyone in the entertainment industry who harbors antiquated beliefs.

Much like “Get Out,” “Us” and the recent “Spiral,” “Antebellum” is a confident piece of art that isn’t afraid to make viewers squirm with discomfort.

But it also makes abundantly clear the consequence for those who continue to sit in complicit silence.

Speak out, speak up, or get burned to the ground.

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.

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