“Antebellum” opens on one of those Civil War-era plantations where Confederate soldiers plow through fields of slaves. It’s a brutal beginning, but it goes on longer than something like this should.
Janelle Monae plays a woman looking for a way out but help seems unlikely. Then, just when you think the film is headed toward a conclusion, we see Monae as a contemporary author slated to speak at a seminar.
“Our ancestors haunt our dreams,” Monae says and, quickly, we’re not sure what writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are up to.
“Antebellum” wants to be as clever as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” but it doesn’t possess the same subtlety. Here, white characters – in both worlds – are so vile they don’t deserve the screen time. Jena Malone, as a condescending woman in both locations, needed someone to pull her back so this would resonate. By making her so over-the-top, Bush and Renz blunt “Antebellum’s” impact, particularly when the “surprise” is finally revealed.
Gabourey Sidibe, as Monae’s contemporary friend, has much more success with resonance. She opens up on a restaurant worker, then levels a man at the bar. Coming late in the film, her performance is one that could have given this a firmer foundation.
As constructed, it’s a TV miniseries (think: “North and South”) that doesn’t realize much has transpired since “Gone With the Wind.”
Eric Lange all but twirls his mustache as a Confederate soldier who complicates Monae’s life. He’s matched in intensity by several others. Why, we’re never sure, but it’s enough to fuel his prey’s determination.
Because it treads where “12 Years a Slave” has already been, this can only pale in comparison. The plantation setting takes advantage of vivid blue skies and nighttime fires but, again, an earlier tip of the hand could have helped.
Monae has greater success as Veronica Henley, the Columbia University scholar. But she’s given more to do as Eden, the slave. One’s cerebral; the other’s physical. Like other films on her resume, this doesn’t begin to realize a 10th of its star’s potential.
The same could be said of the script. At a time when “Antebellum” could help build a better world, it settles for painting by numbers.
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