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Peculiar institutions and the sins of the present – ‘Antebellum’

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Genre filmmaking has long been used as a tool for social commentary. The trappings of sci-fi or horror or what have you give cover for filmmakers to deliver messaging that might be met with more resistance other arenas of expression. The extrapolation and/or exaggeration of typical mores can say a lot about the world.

“Antebellum” – currently available via VOD – certainly TRIES to say something, though whether it is ultimately successful is debatable. The movie, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, attempts to bring together the past and present of racism and white supremacist ideas in service of a horror story. Unfortunately, using real-life horrors as the basis for fictional ones requires a delicacy and sophistication that “Antebellum” can’t quite manage.

It’s a well-made film, with good performances. It just doesn’t deliver on the underlying ideas; instead, it reads as using historical atrocities as simple horror fodder, largely content to stay on the surface of the overt rather than diving fully into the ideological depths. This means that “Antebellum” feels more exploitative than it ought; it seems unlikely that that was the intent, but it rings wrong regardless.

An escaped slave named Eden (Janelle Monae, “Harriet”) has been returned to her Louisiana plantation; it has been commandeered by Confederate forces and is being used as a base of operations. Her master is the leader of these forces, though he is only referred to as Him (Eric Lange, TV’s “Perry Mason”) – he takes it upon himself to brutally punish her for her attempt at getting away.

But from the beginning, we get the sense that there’s something … off. Little glimpses and moments that seem incongruous and ill-fitted to the time and place. That sense is only exacerbated when a group of new slaves are brought to the plantation; one of the newcomers – a woman named Julia (Kiersey Clemons, “Scoob!”) – recognizes Eden and asks for her help in escaping this place. It’s a request that Eden is too fearful to fill.

After a particularly ugly encounter with Him, Eden goes to sleep and dreams of a different life. That is, she REMEMBERS a different life.

In this other life, Eden is Veronica Henley, a noted sociologist and author living in the 21st century with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson, “Inheritance”) and daughter Kennedi (London Boyce in her debut). Her success means she is in demand as a speaker; she heads to a conference to give a presentation. She meets up with her friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe, TV’s “Empire”) and Sarah (Lily Cowles, TV’s “Roswell, New Mexico”) to catch up afterward, but decides to head home early after dinner … and it is then that the two worlds we’ve seen fully collide.

Trapped in a place that she doesn’t understand and bound by abhorrent customs thought long dead, Eden/Veronica must find a way to break free from the bondage in which she finds herself. In opposition are a group of vile, hateful people determined to maintain their hold on their version of the peculiar institution – and willing to kill to do so.

There are certain aspects of “Antebellum” that can’t really be discussed without spoilers (although you likely won’t have much of a problem working out the narrative twists), but what can be said is that all in all, there’s the framework of a very good story here. It’s a conceit with a lot of potential, one that has room for the red meat of horror while also saying something of social value.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t fully realize that potential. The messaging is lost in the medium; in the process of capturing the visceral unpleasantness and evil born of racial inequality, Bush and Renz wind up losing the deeper meaning. Ultimately, the luridness and ugliness often wind up feeling gratuitous, undermining the impact of what, again, is a pretty good idea.

And make no mistake – things get brutal. There are a few moments that are off-putting to the extreme, pushing things right to the edge … and maybe past it a time or two. That degree of extremity is more easily forgiven if there’s a worthwhile message being conveyed, but in this case, it feels more like voyeurism.

Again – “Antebellum” is a well-made movie (though there are some unanswered narrative questions and a couple of genuinely baffling choices). The filmmakers clearly know their way around a camera and display an obvious understanding of how to elicit a reaction via imagery. But the quality of the work is undercut by the empty space where the film’s messaging should be; without it, we’re left with an attractive package containing … nothing.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical upon first hearing of Janelle Monae’s foray into acting. I’ll also admit that I was wrong; she’s a real talent. And she gives it her all here, bringing a fractured energy to what must have been an extremely challenging role. Her work holds “Antebellum” together; the rest of the uniformly solid cast follows her lead. They’re all good, but there are a few real highlights – Sidibe is her usual charming self, while Jena Malone and Jack Huston are wonderfully awful as husband-and-wife slaveowners.

Alas, good performances aren’t enough, because while most of the pieces are there for “Antebellum” to really work, it’s missing the most important one – meaning. It gives the illusion of having meaning, but in reality, the film is a gaudy, grisly bauble – style without substance. And it’s too bad, because it isn’t hard to imagine a version of this film that is legitimately great.

Just not this one.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 21 September 2020 11:05

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