“Antebellum,” the racially charged horror film from writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, opens with this quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then we see a traveling shot, done in one take, in which the camera covers the daily operations taking place on a vast slave plantation. We see Confederate soldiers walking around as slaves nervously work or stand in attention. This longshot immerses us in this rotten, vividly reconstructed world. While not a “scary” movie that relies on “jump scares,” the film immediately unsettles and declares it isn’t kidding around.

A runaway slave named Eden, played by Janelle Monae, is punished for her attempts to escape. Eden’s daily life is filled with racist violence, as Confederate soldiers swagger about, brutalizing the slaves working the cotton fields and boasting of their progress in the Civil War. Eden appears to have given up trying to flee this vile place, even as the other slaves are begging her to try again.

Over thirty minutes on, the film pulls a stunning reversal: Monae is suddenly playing a different woman, named Veronica, who lives in the 21st century, is visibly wealthy, lives with her husband and daughter and is a famous, in-demand speaker. 

The mystery presented is rich, as the sudden contrast of a new character and filmmaking approach truly spellbinds. We’re seeing a clear connection between the past and present, as clues and lingering moments suggest how the two worlds coalesce. It’s striking to see the dissimilarities between the two women Monae is playing, as Eden is defeated and broken, while Veronica is empowered and outgoing. 

This feature length debut from Bush and Renz, who both excelled in making short films prior to this, is as thought provoking as it is visually stunning.

When the big reveal arrives, it’s audacious but not terribly fresh. The filmmakers are taking a concept we’ve seen before and giving it a new spin. Despite a pivotal third act plot twist that isn’t original, “Antebellum” is still angry, provocative and relevant. It’s a big and entirely welcome middle finger to the growing white supremacy movement in this country. 

The violence is brutal, though it thankfully lacks the vivid, clinical approach of “12 Years a Slave.” Although “restrained” is hardly the word I’d use to describe this, the filmmakers clearly take the social implications of their film seriously and often avoid being explicit.

As satisfying and bold as the final moments are, I wish the film had kept going and further expanded on the ideas it unspools visually but doesn’t fully articulate. It left me with the feeling that the screenplay, for all its power and ability to fully draw me in, is somewhat underdeveloped. 

Monae’s excellent work holds it all together. Her dual roles are complex, physically and emotionally demanding, a considerable challenge that Monae rises to in every scene. Nothing she has done earlier (not even “Moonlight or “Hidden Figures”) indicates how good she is here. Although she’s already made her mark as a singer/songwriter, this could be the start of a career as a dramatic actress. 

Jena Malone has been cast as a central villain on the plantation- I love this actress but her performance is downright cartoonish. Far more effective in a similar role is an intense turn by Jack Huston. The performances are fully committed to the filmmaker’s meticulous vision.

“Antebellum” was originally scheduled for release at the top of the summer movie season, got held back due to the spread of the coronavirus and is now available as a video on demand attraction. Had it been released in theaters as planned, it likely would have sparked a great deal of worthwhile conversation, even controversy, and provided a sharp alternative to typical summer movie fare. As a very grown up alternative to most escapist fare, it speaks forcefully to the world we live in today. It’s not subtle and falls short in some ways but Monae’s work and the confrontational nature of the film’s disturbing vision make it worth seeking out.

Three Stars

On premium demand platforms, including Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and Apple TV, starting Friday, September 18th.

originally published in Maui Time Weekly