VOD film review: Antebellum
Janelle and Gabourey6
Ivan Radford | On 02, Apr 2021
Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Cast: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Gabourey Sidibe
Where to watch Antebellum online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s the quote from William Faulker that opens Antebellum, a twisting thriller that looks to explore the ways that the horrors of slavery still persist today. It’s graphic, unpleasant and wraps its nastiness up in a playful genre wrapper that’s as tasteless as it sounds.
Janelle Monáe stars as Eden, a new arrival at a Confederate estate in Louisiana who is promptly exploited and abused by the slave-drivers overseeing the enforced labour in cotton fields. Writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz take an unflinching approach to the whole harrowing ordeal, but confuse a film presenting exploitation on screen with being exploitative itself – from slow-motion shots to brutal assaults, it’s a crass and tone-deaf effort.
And that’s before we also see Monáe play Victoria, a modern-day author who’s enjoying professional success, but finds herself harassed by the familiar-looking Elizabeth (Jena Malone). A brief outing in which Victoria goes out with her friends – including a scene-stealing Gabourey Sidibe as her charismatic friend, Dawn – offers us a temporary respite with a warm, amusing depiction of friendship. But rather than make a film about that, Dawn soon disappears off-screen and leaves us back in the highly dubious blend of past and present – an uneasy cocktail that plays out like 12 Years a Slave remade by M Night Shyamalan.
There’s a message that the filmmakers obviously want to convey, but they go about telling it in all the wrong ways. Clearly satisfied with its central premise and thinking that’s all the work needed, the film instead ends up repeating things that nobody needs repeating, let alone seeing them repeated on a big screen without any depth, insight or empathy.