ANTEBELLUM: A Failure Of Storytelling

With the world in need of insightful films about race, social divide, and tolerance during a time when systemic racism has become a long overdue forefront cause to so many, Antebellum should have been a point of deeper discussion. Unfortunately, the film is too unsure of itself to achieve such accolades. Antebellum, directed by first-time feature-length writers/filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz attempts to create a horror film the likes of Jordan Peele‘s Get Out, even as far as being produced by the same team. The result is a slow, dull, mess whose message, although well-intentioned and much needed, misses the mark severely due to the shoddy construction of an underdeveloped screenplay.

Antebellum tells the story of famed African American writer Veronica Henley, played by the captivating Janelle Monáe, whose best selling book hopes to empower women of color in the modern day to aspire to more than the societal stereotypes thrust upon them by the white hierarchy embedded throughout history, only to find herself abducted and put into slavery on what seems to be an 1860’s Confederate run plantation. The film starts with a sweeping depiction of life in the South during the Civil War Era. The scene meanders methodically through gorgeous landscapes, only to unveil the atrocities beset upon the slave class of the farm. The dichotomy of the beautiful scenery juxtaposed against the horrendous master/slave relationships sets the film up as a harsh reality in US history. Suddenly, Veronica wakes up in the present, setting up the head-scratching start of the film.

ANTEBELLUM: A Failure Of Storytelling
source: Lionsgate

Sadly, Antebellum begins to lose sight of characterization, world-building, and the plot just as quickly by adding little in terms of story. What follows feels unpolished to the point of tedium.

Character Building Is Key

Without trying to give away the twist of the film, which, in a more seasoned storyteller’s hands could have had an insightful impact, this review will do it’s best to point out the shortcomings without spoiling too much. Structurally, Antebellum is a difficult film to discuss given the plot device used to bring about the anti-climactic third act, or at least the way it was used, is sloppy in execution.

The film is told out of sequence and in doing so the filmmakers take little care to create engaging heroes and villains. It felt as though they were trying so hard to keep the story rolling toward the twist that they forgot to introduce its characters as anything other than stereotypically racist Southerners or downtrodden slaves. With the exception of Veronica and her family, characters are treated as one-note figures set up on a game board waiting for their turn. You are made to pretty much despise everyone who has a line to read, especially when it comes to Jena Malone and Gabourey Sidibe who do nothing but give you reasons to dislike them with every line they spew. Not to say they are terrible actresses, far from it. They are just written with such caustic unlike-ability that any depth or reason behind their actions become secondary to the plot.

ANTEBELLUM: A Failure Of Storytelling
source: Lionsgate

Nobody is fleshed out or helpful to the world-building, even leaving our hapless protagonists as blank canvasses in need of a rewrite. One could count several moments when characters, who could have played as relevant, languish in silence, given nothing to do throughout a story meant to stoke a deeper range of emotions other than those portrayed.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is A Straight Line

Any magician worth their salt uses distraction and misdirection to mask the prestige of their trick. The same can be said for films. Non-linear storytelling is one of the most common misdirects used by creatives to hide what they have up their sleeve thus creating a more gripping reveal. Throughout Antebellum, the time periods seemingly shift from the Civil War Ear to modern-day in order to mask the true conceit. Weaving in and out of the two worlds created, Bush and Renz ruin their twist by not having enough gravitas in their writing and plot development to pull off such a stunt without gumming up the works in the process.

The story being told is sort of interesting, if not a bit touchy in subject, once you cut through this mishmash of a script and play it in sequence. The filmmakers seemed so worried about hiding the twist from the audience, they forgot about making you care about the characters, or god forbid getting to know them at all.

ANTEBELLUM: A Failure Of Storytelling
source: Lionsgate

Subtle Easter eggs pepper the landscape and if you merely take a moment, the whole thing shows itself late in the second act. Every misstep could have been easily avoided by simply untangling the knots, smoothing out the bumps, and having more faith in the writing process. Understandably, this was a first effort by the pair to make a feature and their attempt was admirable. The cinematography is stunning, the cast is talented, and the concept is there. The missing pieces come from trying to base the entire premise on a misdirect the creatives hadn’t sussed out properly.

Noble Intent Burdened By Broad Strokes

Now onto the deeper conversation not fully addressed thus far by this review. The lack of speaking upon the racial aspects of Antebellum comes from not wanting to speak out of turn. Being a white male, I can only inject my deepest sympathy and regrets for the deplorable treatment people of color have endured throughout history, but an attempt to analyze the plight of those affected by racism would be a disservice to the many who have actually been a victim of bigotry and could speak on the matter far more vehemently than myself. Instead, I’ve chosen to analyze the film from the aspect of narrative missteps which could have brought this production to a powerful conclusion fit for such an important and needed discussion.

Storytelling, no matter the subject, needs development and style. Both of which are severely lacking in this case. Several times throughout the film, I found myself struggling to even remember the names of any of the characters other than Veronica and hoped that the lack of information would come into play at some crucial moment. Sadly, no. Instead, we are given a rushed, albeit, boring plot where characters thought to play pivotal roles are portrayed as nothing more than background actors. Antebellum, for all it promises in its slick trailers and eye-catching imagery, fails on several levels to ever come full circle in its intent while only worrying about a failed, yet intriguing, twist ending that blindly rushes toward the finish.

Is there a high concept film that drops the ball by the time credits roll? The Film Inquiry Community would love to hear from you. Leave a comment and keep the conversation going.

Antebellum is now available VOD.

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