Chicago Sun-Times


Well-made drama about slav­ery’s hor­rors builds to frus­trat­ing fin­ish

- RICHARD ROEPER rroeper@sun­ | @RichardERo­eper Entertainment · Movies · Get Out · Janelle Monae · United States of America · Charlottesville · London · The Shining · The Usual Suspects · Kiersey Clemons · Robert E. Lee · Gabourey Sidibe · Jena Malone · Marque Richardson

From “The Cry­ing Game” to “The Usual Sus­pects,” from “The Sixth Sense” to “Get Out,” we love those movies with the Big Re­veal that stops us in our tracks and has us ex­claim­ing, “Wait, WHAT NOW?”

“Antebellum” swings for the fences with a Big Re­veal — but it’s an epic strike­out built on a foun­da­tion of sadis­tic vi­o­lence and it rips off a cer­tain film from nearly two decades ago, leav­ing us feel­ing frus­trated and conned. That this is such a well-made pro­duc­tion, with pas­sion­ate and strong per­for­mances from the stel­lar cast, makes it all the more exasperati­ng. What a missed op­por­tu­nity.

Writer-di­rec­tors Ger­ard Bush and Christo­pher Renz open “Antebellum” with an ex­tended and skill­fully ren­dered track­ing shot on a South­ern plan­ta­tion that has be­come quar­ters for Con­fed­er­ate troops dur­ing the Civil War. A lit­tle white girl hap­pily skips through the fields as a Black man in an iron yoke screams in agony while a cap­tain on horse­back loops a noose around the neck of a Black woman who is pre­sum­ably try­ing to es­cape. She is mur­dered.

This is a hor­ror movie even be­fore it an­nounces it­self as a hor­ror movie.

Shortly af­ter that bru­tal se­quence (which, like many other scenes, is jux­ta­posed against “magic hour” sun­sets), we’re in­tro­duced to Janelle Monae’s Eden, a slave who is lit­er­ally branded for per­ceived in­sub­or­di­na­tion. Not long af­ter that hor­rific mo­ment, Kiersey Cle­mons’ Ju­lia, a slave who is preg­nant, is beaten in her cabin by a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier who lashes out at her af­ter she sug­gests he’s not like his com­rades and ac­tu­ally has some com­pas­sion in his heart. This film is filled with such scenes of racist bru­tal­ity, to the point of feel­ing ex­ploita­tive.

For 40 min­utes, “Antebellum” is locked on that plan­ta­tion, with some of the slaves plot­ting an es­cape while the mon­strous plan­ta­tion own­ers and equally de­spi­ca­ble Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers sub­ject them to unimag­in­ably cruel treat­ment. “We are de­scen­dants of the gods,” says a South­ern gen­eral at a din­ner gath­er­ing of the troops. “This land has al­ways been ours. Our na­tion­al­ist state will not be stolen from us by these traitors to Amer­ica.”

This is but one in­stance of heavy-handed sym­bol­ism and ref­er­ences to our cur­rent world. One Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier calls an­other “snowflake.” South­ern troops march­ing in the night chant the Nazi re­frain “blood and soil,” a la the white na­tion­al­ists at Char­lottesvill­e. A statue of Robert E. Lee is used as a vi­o­lent vis­ual punch­line.

And then, in jar­ring fash­ion, “Antebellum” cuts to present day, with Monae as Veron­ica Hen­ley, a suc­cess­ful and cel­e­brated au­thor liv­ing in a beau­ti­ful home with a lov­ing hus­band (Mar­que Richard­son) and a young daugh­ter (Lon­don Boyce). While tour­ing the coun­try pro­mot­ing her lat­est book, “Shed­ding the Cop­ing Per­sona,” Veron­ica meets up with her best friends Sarah (Lily Cowles) and Dawn (a hi­lar­i­ous Gabourey Sidibe), who en­dure not-so-sub­tle racism, from the host­ess who gives them the worst table in the restau­rant to the white waiter who re­sponds to their Cham­pagne or­der by sug­gest­ing they go for some­thing more mod­er­ately priced, like Prosecco. Even more dis­turb­ing are Veron­ica’s in­ter­ac­tions with a woman from the South (Jena Malone) who looks ex­actly like the plan­ta­tion owner’s wife, and a lit­tle white girl who tells Veron­ica she’ll get in trou­ble for talk­ing — con­jur­ing up mem­o­ries of the slaves in the First Act who were for­bid­den to even speak to one an­other.

Are we in a time travel story? An episode of “The Twi­light Zone”? The answers are re­vealed in the Third Act, when we re­turn to the plan­ta­tion and the story of Eden. Along the way, “Antebellum” shame­lessly bor­rows from “The Shin­ing” and the afore­men­tioned film from the early 2000s, cul­mi­nat­ing with a rous­ing and ad­mit­tedly dra­mat­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing (al­beit bat-bleep crazy) se­ries of events, fol­lowed by a bor­der­line lu­di­crous epi­logue that gives us just enough time to re­al­ize the con­trived and im­plau­si­ble na­ture of ev­ery­thing that just tran­spired.

 ?? LIONSGATE ?? A hor­ri­bly mis­treated slave named Eden is one of two roles played by Janelle Monae in “Antebellum.”
LIONSGATE A hor­ri­bly mis­treated slave named Eden is one of two roles played by Janelle Monae in “Antebellum.”
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