Movie Review: Antebellum

The box office numbers for TENET are out and they’re not pretty. The Christopher Nolan big budget spectacle needs to take in about US$400 million just to break even, but after two weeks the film has only grossed half that amount worldwide with the bulk of the money coming from outside the US. That may be sending shivers down the spines of the execs at Lionsgate. Their highly anticipated entry, ANTEBELLUM, has been touted as the next saviour of the Hollywood film industry but with TENET falling so short of the mark, it’s not looking good for ANTEBELLUM either. Though the film only needs US$30 million to break even, that amount may still be too high a hurdle to leap.

Eden (actress-singer Janelle Monáe, HIDDEN FIGURES; MOONLIGHT) is a Black slave who is forced to work on a cotton plantation during the American antebellum era. After her friends pay the ultimate price for trying to escape, Eden gives up on the idea of being free. That all changes when Julia (Kiersey Clemons, TV’s ANGIE TRIBECA), another slave, arrives. The outspoken, young woman gives Eden new strength to fight on. Fast forward to today where Veronica Henley (Monáe in a dual role) is a PhD, successful author and advocate for Black empowerment. At a conference in New Orleans where she is speaking, Veronica begins to notice hints of systemic racism. Her friends, Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe, PRECIOUS, TV’s EMPIRE) and Sarah (Lily Cowles, TV’s ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO) see some of it too, but they write it off as the unfortunate “normal”. Veronica’s worst fears come true when she is kidnapped by Elizabeth (Jena Malone, the HUNGER GAMES franchise), a mysterious woman who clearly takes issue with Veronica’s outspokenness.

In this summer’s national reckoning of race in the US (and elsewhere), ANTEBELLUM seems like it should be the right movie at the right time. Unfortunately, first-time feature directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who also wrote the screenplay, don’t do a great job connecting the dots from the antebellum South days to today. The pair (Bush is Black; Renz is White), who are social activists with an extensive portfolio of short films and ads for the cause, made a film that is beautifully and thoughtfully shot but, sadly, lacks depth. Though ANTEBELLUM’s running time is a reasonable 105 minutes, many scenes drag on well past the time where the point is made, or we’re given Veronica making a TEDx talk that might have been written by a high schooler who used Wikipedia as a primary source. With judicious editing, this could easily have been a 60-minute movie but that’s not even the most disappointing part of ANTEBELLUM. In the film’s time-bending and genre-bending third act, Eden sinks to the level of her captors to obtain her freedom, and the directors even glorify her victory in a shot that will only embolden racists’ claims that the BLM movement seeks to overthrow the White establishment through violent means. That message couldn’t be further from the directors’ intent but that’s what they gave audiences.

For her part, Monáe does a good job with what she’s given but it’s Sidibe and Malone who are the most memorable. I would have liked to have seen their two characters go at it but unfortunately they don’t share any scenes together. Another missed opportunity.

ANTEBELLUM opened in the cinemas last Thursday in Hong Kong. In the US, it will be available on PVOD in the US starting on the 18th. With the exception of the performances by Sidibe and Malone, at US$20 to rent, you can safely give this one a miss.

I normally put the film’s trailer here but the trailer for ANTEBELLUM gives away its big surprise. How dumb is that?

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, September 11th, 8:30 am HK time!

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