Who doesn’t love pansexual icon Janelle Monáe? The fiercest of divas (sorry Bey) in the music world, there are few who can compare to her when it comes to the inventiveness of her musical creations. As an actress, known for her layered performances in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures,” she is truly on a path to cinematic stardom.
That’s what makes “Antebellum” (Lionsgate/QC Entertainment) something of a disappointment. Talked about in the same breath as Jordan Peele’s exceptional “Get Out” and “Us,” “Antebellum” comes up just a little short. Still, the incredible timeliness of the movie is undeniable, especially in light of the racist right-wing responses to Kamala Harris being selected as Joe Biden’s running mate.
For that, gay co-directing/co-writing duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz deserve recognition. While it missed out on a splashy theatrical release, “Antebellum” is premiering via premium on-demand platforms at a time when it’s needed most.
“Antebellum” opens with a William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then, for the first 40 minutes of the movie, we witness the brutality of life on a “reformer plantation … commandeered by the confederacy.” Confederate soldiers patrol the grounds, watch over the cotton fields where slaves pick cotton by hand and are routinely beaten, sexually abused and killed; their bodies disposed of in a burn shed.
The most ruthless soldier of all is Hugo (Jack Huston), who runs the plantation when the owner, General Weaver (Eric Lange), is away. Along with his vicious wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone), they make life for those enslaved on the plantation extremely unbearable. Only Eden (Monáe) is slightly spared because the General has a thing for her. Unfortunately, others suffer more when attempts at escaping, organized by Eden, fail.
But wait, how is it possible that while Eden is asleep she hears a cell phone ringing? It’s a device to take us back in time and explain how Eden, real name Veronica, arrived at this horrible destination. A sociologist and New York Times best-selling author, Veronica lives with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and young daughter Kennedi (London Boyce). She is on her way out of town to a conference where she will discuss her book, which is about the intersectionality of race, class and gender, and is meant to serve as a roadmap to revolution for historically marginalized people.
The first sign that something is amiss is an unpleasant Skype call from a woman named Elizabeth (Malone) who has difficulty hiding her Southern racist personality. A slightly rattled Veronica is doing yoga in her conference-site hotel room when her friend Bridget (the always delightful Gabourey Sidibe) arrives. The #1 relationship specialist in the world, she is also at the hotel for the conference. After confirming dinner plans, Bridget leaves, and there is another knock on Veronica’s door. This time it’s a hotel clerk delivering a creepy floral arrangement, complete with cotton blossoms.
Before you can say, well, “get out,” even more bizarre events take place. The hotel concierge is inexplicably rude to Veronica. Elizabeth gains access to Veronica’s room and steals her lipstick. Veronica has a strange elevator interaction with a little girl wearing a Civil War-era dress and Nikes. Worst of all, after dinner with Bridget and another friend, Veronica’s Uber ride results in her being violently abducted by Elizabeth (who also happens to be the daughter of the General) and Hugo.
To say much more would give away one of the surprise elements of the movie. But viewers should know that “Antebellum” is ultimately a twisted tale of Civil War re-enactors taking their love of the time period, along with their deep hatred of having lost, more than a little too far.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.