Unnerving audiences with an uncanny sensibility, horror films continue to excel as the genre reaches for new substantive heights. Filmmakers like Jordan Peel, Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, and Robert Eggers have imbued a new sense of artistry and purpose into the familiar framework, setting a new high-bar for filmmakers to follow. Writer/Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz attempt to follow suit with their first feature Antebellum, a promising, yet misguided attempt to confront systematic racism.
Antebellum follows Veronica (Janelle Monae), a successful author and political pundit who works to confront society’s uncomfortable truths. After being kidnapped, Veronica awakes as a slave stuck in a pre-Reconstruction time period. Left to fight for her life, she attempts to discover what’s going on under the surface of this bizarre reality.
Observing slavery’s discriminatory practices to reflect on modern prejudices stemmed from that antiquated era, Bush and Renz certainly have a pulse on a wide-spanning conceit. The problems arise from their inability to illustrate deeper nuances within their high-concept set-up. Like many first screenplays, Antebellum rests solely on the laurels of its intriguing premise, implementing wooden dialogue and a lingering sense of inauthenticity that stunt the narrative at every turn.
The scenes set in the modern era are especially flat, revolving around over-written caricatures that muddle the filmmakers’ tangible intentions (a Fox News-esque sequence lands with a clunky obviousness). These issues severely hamper star Janelle Monae, whose previously shined as a multi-faceted talent with radiant charisma onscreen. As Veronica, Monae is letdown by a thankless role devoid of personability and weight, leaving audiences with nothing to attach to.
Antebellum sells itself as a horror film, but without proper gravitas, the execution lands closer to uncomfortable exploitation. Slavery has morphed into tired subject matter, often relegating talented black actors to submissive roles that only work to trudge up an ugly, well-known reality. Attempts to build a sense of atmosphere and unease through these depictions land with an awkward thud, lacking the grace and substantive core to give purpose to these actions. There are some promising frames that have me intrigued by Bush and Renz’s future (the final frames evoke a visceral impact and emotional power), although it’s clear there’s room for refinement.
While constructed with noble aspirations, Antebellum’s clumsy execution fails to evoke the weight of its subject matter.
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