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Antebellum Movie Review: I Wish I Weren’t in Dixie

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BY September 19, 2020
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Boy, we really liked that Antebellum trailer, didn’t we, folks? It looked a little scary, a little intriguing, and delightfully twisty. At least, that’s what I thought when I watched it. And then I watched the movie. Anyway, it’s great to have memories, isn’t it? But let’s talk about the past (and the present) in this Antebellum movie review.

Antebellum: A Mostly Spoiler-Free Plot Summary

antebellum movie review image via Lionsgate

It is nearly impossible to talk about the movie without giving too much away. To that end, see the movie’s own plot summary:

Successful author Veronica Henley finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the past, present and future — before it’s too late.

Uh-huh, clear as mud. But as you’ve surely gleaned from the trailer, the movie depicts two stories at once. There is the one the official summary refers to, in which Veronica (Janelle Monáe) goes about her life as a well-known author and activist. And then there is the plantation story. This one actually takes up the bulk of the movie, and it is the first of its many mistakes.

Film Confuses Endurance with Horror

For the first 40 minutes or so, the movie offers up little traditional scares or even plot. Instead, it treats the audience to what can only be described as straight-up slavery torture and trauma porn. It’s hard to think of a single indignity that the movie skips, as it ladles on violation after violation. The lady in green we see running in the trailer, for instance–there’s no happy ending for her. Instead, she’s chased and then murdered, her body torched. The chase and capture are filmed in slow-motion, so that we may see every moment of her agony. Her murder takes place against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. Over and over again, we witness the suffering of Black women like her offered up as entertainment–scenes in a thriller, after all. And for what, exactly?

I presume the writer/directors behind this film intended to show slavery as the brutal institution it was. However, that’s not how it plays in practice. Instead, as every scene at the plantation is depicted in such rich–almost loving–detail, it comes off more as both exploitative and as an endurance test for audiences. And in the end, not only is it not really a thriller, but it also doesn’t mean much at all.

Somewhere south of the first 40 minutes, I thought, Hey, wouldn’t it be wild if it turned out this was like… and then I compared it to another movie. I can’t say what the movie is, because as it actually turns out, my half-baked wondering was very close to the final story. However, I prefer my initial instincts, because the story as it stands is paper-thin.

Antebellum Movie Review

antebellum movie review image via Lionsgate

We meet Veronica, we understand what is happening to her, watch her “confront” it, and then it ends. There is little accounting or explanation, though, for anything we’ve seen. Again, without revealing the twist upon which the story turns, I can’t really get into specifics, but just…how and why? How could the mechanics of all that be possible? Why does everyone pronounce “Eden” like that? But the movie isn’t interested in answering our questions.

However, even before the story reveals its meager secrets, as it were, it doesn’t play as believable. It’s in everything from the conversations, which are often either exposition dumps or riddled with clunker lines, to the interactions. When Veronica is in a rideshare, for instance, and her actual driver calls her, she dismisses the conversation seemingly without a second thought–she’s more concerned with the volume of the stereo playing in the rideshare. A man wrote that, I thought. Well, two men wrote it, but still. Veronica’s characterization doesn’t read as true, but then again, neither does anyone else. They’re all vague people shapes, some of whom squawk their lines in accents so atrocious, it’s like we’re listening to the contestants in a bootleg competition of Foghorn Leghorn imitators.

As for the why of it all, that too stays shrouded in mystery–but perhaps that’s for the best. The rest of the movie is rendered in such dull tones, such clumsy execution, that it’s likely they would have fumbled a more concrete message. There is a fascinating and scary story here. There is a movie with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the filmmakers, perhaps due to inexperience, just aren’t skilled enough to pull it all off. Ultimately, my review is that the movie Antebellum is a spectacular failure. But with a bit more meaning, a bit more nuance, it could have been so much more. It could have been just spectacular.

Have you seen Antebellum? What are your thoughts? Tell us on our social media or in the comments.

featured image via Lionsgate

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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