Antebellum (CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Lily Cowles

Directors: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tortuous Torture

Release Date: September 18, 2020 (On Demand)

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about certain movies in depth without completely spoiling them, and Antebellum is one of those movies. So just so we’re on the same page right at the top, I’m going to get pretty in depth. But I don’t feel like I’m giving away spoilers, because the main twist of Antebellum (or what could be construed as the twist) feels more like the premise. If the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are trying to surprise us, they don’t do a very good job of it. But the way they tip their hand so early, I don’t think they’re trying to play coy. But if that’s indeed the case and they want things to be loud and clear, it raises some questions about why they chose to reveal their information the way that they do.

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Antebellum, I assumed that Janelle Monáe was playing a 21st century woman who finds herself enslaved after becoming inexplicably transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. I didn’t know else to interpret it! The only question was, how did she get there? Was it time travel? An alternate dimension? An illusion? A series of dreams that feel all too real? Whatever the explanation, I thought it made for a potent setup. But alas, Bush and Renz aren’t really interested in reckoning with the terror of this situation. Instead, they just present it as is.

Antebellum opens on the plantation, and it takes about 40 minutes before we see Veronica Henley (Monáe) in her element in the present day with her husband and daughter, doing her thing as a successful author and scholar of vaguely elucidated intersectionality. That’s quite a long time for a prologue that tells us all we need to know in five minutes. There are people on the plantation being held against their will, and we don’t need to see them getting tortured, because we’ve already seen it in plenty of other onscreen slavery narratives. Let’s just get around to finding out how they ended up there and how they’re going to attempt to escape.

And now I’m just to get into all the nitty-gritty, so even bigger SPOILER ALERT if you want it, but this piece of information felt like the only possible explanation as soon as I started watching: Veronica and all the other enslaved people are kidnapping victims, and the plantation is a reenactment of an Antebellum South plantation, complete with slave masters and all kinds of abuse. Somehow the people behind this criminal enterprise have been able to pull it off without ever arousing suspicion from the authorities or the general public. Or maybe suspicions have been aroused! It’s hard to tell, because we never get a significant sense of the context in which this place has been erected. I can buy that there’s still enough racism in the world for there to be an interest in a place this awful, but I can’t buy that it’s practically invisible unless it exists in a fantastical world. Bush and Renz have a kernel of an effective idea here, and they’ve got a bunch of game actors ready to deliver, but they need to pay attention to all those pesky details.

Antebellum is Recommended If You Like: Trying to make sense of the inexplicable

Grade: 2 out of 5 Plantations