Antebellum is produced by Sean McKittrick, who previously brought us such modern masterpieces as Get Out and Us. It certainly has echoes of those two films, not to mention 12 Years a Slave, The Village, and The Handmaid’s Tale. That all sounds quite promising and at times, Antebellum gives us glimpses of what could be mistaken for a classic Twilight Zone episode. The problem is that all of the aforementioned movies and shows tackled its themes much better. While it has some intriguing ideas, Antebellum never comes together as a psychological thriller, a social satire, or a commentary on slavery.
Antebellum starts on a chilling note as we open on what appears to be a 19th-century plantation in what appears to be a single shot. We’re immediately immersed in another world dominated by slave drivers (Eric Lange) and southern belles (Jena Malone). Meanwhile, the strong-willed Veronica (Janelle Monáe) attempts to escape this horror show. After multiple failed attempts, Veronica, or Eden as her captors call her, is ready to give up. A newly captured woman (Kiersey Clemons) gives Veronica the courage to keep fighting, though. As uncomfortable as the first act is, it is haunting and well-acted, but things aren’t what they seem.
If you’re reading this review, chances are that you already watched the trailer for Antebellum. If not, keep in mind that the rest of this review delves into what may be construed as spoilers. Antebellum is largely built around a twist that becomes increasingly clear by its second act. For whatever reason, the trailer gives away everything. Veronica isn’t a 19th-century slave, but a 21st-century black woman who’s been kidnapped and forced into labor. If you’ve seen the trailer, it takes away much of the suspense that the movie was trying to build up. That said, it’s unfair to judge a movie based on its advertising since the filmmakers and marketing team are two separate entities. Even if you haven’t seen the trailer, however, Antebellum falls victim to a poorly paced screenplay.
The second act focuses on Veronica living a normal life with her family and friends. That normalcy is interrupted by several ominous figures, hinting at what’s in store for Veronica. The audience already knows what’s in store for Veronica, however, removing the uncertain sense of dread we’re supposed to be feeling. It would’ve been more effective if the first two acts were reversed. By telling the story out of order, the second act simply drags as we wait for the inevitable. This story structure solely exists to service a twist that the trailer gives away anyway.
As for the third act, it’s littered with too many plot holes to fill. It’s confirmed that the whole film is set in modern-day as an airplane flies over the plantation, another scene shown in the trailer. Why would you run a slave plantation under a plane route? Wouldn’t someone eventually spot what’s happening below? As if that wasn’t a dead giveaway, the plantation is on a public historic site. How have none of the tourists stumbled across the atrocities taking place? Veronica is a well-known activist who fights for the rights of black women on television. Why would you kidnap a public figure? In Get Out, the only person looking for Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris was his TSA friend. If somebody of Veronica’s caliber went missing in real life, there would probably be a wider search.
It’s a shame that Antebellum doesn’t work because some of its themes do ring true in today’s world. Between the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate over Confederate monuments, Antebellum feels like it was written for 2020 audiences. Unfortunately, the film is too contrived and jumbled to get its message across. What’s especially odd is that the film falls short as a thriller. Slavery is one of the most horrifying injustices in human history, which should automatically make Antebellum terrifying. The film is more unpleasant than anything else, however, without bringing anything new to the table.
Antebellum is a PVOD title ONLY.