Antebellum Movie Review

Written by Ren Zelen

Released by Lionsgate UK


Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
2020, 105 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD & Blu-ray Released on 2nd August 2021

Arabella Landrum as Little Blonde Girl
Jena Malone as Elizabeth
Eric Lange as Him / Senator Denton
Janelle Monáe as Veronica / Eden
Tongayi Chirisa as Eli / Professor Tarasai


Antebellum, the feature debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, invokes a familiar quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The writer-director duo have stated that their goal in making the film was to “activate a conversation” that is “of and for this moment.” They hope Antebellum says something about the Black community’s experience and how it still connects to the past.

The film has two time strands – one set in the past and one in the present. Janelle Monáe plays the lead role in both time frames. In the narrative that opens the film, she’s a slave known as Eden who is brutally beaten by her ‘owner’ - a Confederate leader known only as Him (Eric Lange).

She is punished because she dared to organize an escape attempt, but also because she refuses to say the name given to her by her captors and thus acknowledge her servitude. Her possessor asserts his ownership of her by burning his mark on her back with a branding iron.

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Eden and the slaves forced to pick cotton on the plantation are not allowed to speak. They are supervised from horseback and terrorized by a band of Confederate soldiers led by the sadistic Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his haughty and contemptuous wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone).

We see a group dinner where the Confederate soldiers are waited on by crisply dressed female slaves who are there to satisfy all their appetites. The Confederate leader addresses the soldiers in a rousing speech, saying, “This is the only hope we have of retaining our heritage, our way of life”. The sentiments of his diatribe are all too familiar, having been used in a similar way by white supremacist and alt-right groups engaging in demonstrations against the BLM movement.

Though Antebellum is not ostensibly a horror movie, it might earn the label, as it deals with America’s history and the all-too-real horror of slavery. The film presents a sequence of gruelling images, graphically depicting torture, rape, beatings and murder.

Black pain and the horrors of slavery are a difficult and emotive subject, particularly in the current social climate. What may be seen as a problem with Antebellum is that the film tends to linger in slow motion over the grisliest of torments, presumably to ram home the message of the humiliation and suffering doled out to the enslaved, but in doing so it may open itself up to accusations of indulging in an exploitative depiction of violent, slave-film tropes.

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The second act flips to a modern-day perspective. Here Monáe plays activist and scholar Veronica Henley, a wealthy woman with a loving husband and a small daughter she dotes on. Her lavish lifestyle includes a personal Yoga teacher and taking part in horse-riding competitions.

Veronica is due to embark on a tour promoting her latest book ‘Shedding The Coping Persona’, which deals with gender, race, identity politics and trauma, and which has attracted attention from the media.

However, it is in this modern-day segment that Bush and Renz’s screenplay feels least convincing. We see Veronica on stage at a public appearance in New Orleans, lecturing her audience of rapt faces, but she speaks in trite, progressive platitudes, which give us little idea why her work is supposed to be controversial or impactful.

After her stage appearance Veronica meets up with two close girlfriends: Dawn, the flirtatious, sassy, loquacious Black girl (Gabourey Sidibe trying her best to make the stereotypical less dull) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) the comparatively decorous White, blonde girlfriend.

The ensuing conversations consist of the kind of banter and lingo that we have heard in a dozen rom-coms about black female relationships. This depiction of Veronica’s life of wealth, love and friendship seems perfunctory, and inevitably, the night doesn’t end as expected, setting up the reveal of the movie.

The final act takes us back to the miseries of the plantation slaves and unveils the truth of their situation. In the end, we receive catharsis that alleviates the injustice of the brutality we have witnessed, at some length.

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It’s safe to say that artistically, Antebellum is beautiful to look at. Its cinematography sweeps and lingers over the lush plantation lands, the humming heat of the day, the golden sunsets and velvet nights. The modern urban scenes also glory in pops of colour, vibrant costuming, and the hazy light of expensive restaurants at night.

One can admire the ambition of Bush and Renz in their desire to say something relevant about racial unrest as the result of hundreds of years of systematic oppression, but it is a pity that the film is populated by characters who never feel real. The subsidiary black characters feel sketched in, and the white villains are uniformly grotesque. Jack Huston’s Jasper embodies malice and entitlement, while Jena Malone manages to flesh out Elizabeth with a certain silky duplicity, barely concealing a sneering menace.

Lacking any interiority for its characters, Antebellum’s approach to history, slavery and the subsequent social commentary ultimately falls flat. The film implies that depictions of suffering are the only means of understanding what it is to be a person of colour in America.

There is no doubt that cinema has a duty to explore the challenges of the Black community, and there is still much to say on that subject, but that exploration shouldn’t have to come at the expense of the inner life and humanity of the characters involved.


Movie: 2.5 Star Rating Cover

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Ren Zelen
Staff Reviewer
REN ZELEN is a writer, movie critic, reviewer, academic editor, pop-culture junkie and Sandra Bullock lookalike. Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘THE HATHOR DIARIES’ is available on Amazon in the UK and USA and worldwide.
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