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Review: Groan-worthy 'Antebellum' uses slavery for shock factor

Janelle Monae stars in film with dual narrative that crashes and burns

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Antebellum," Janelle Monae stars as Eden, a slave on a Southern plantation who is subjected to horrifying abuse at the hands of her tormentors.

She also stars as Veronica Henley, a successful author and speaker with an idyllic home life, a lovely daughter and a raucous pack of gal pals.  

Janelle Monae in "Antebellum."

How these two realities connect is both the purpose and the undoing of this half-baked psychological thriller, which would have made a good episode of "Black Mirror" but doesn't sustain the weight of a full-length feature. 

That's because writing-directing team Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz hang their film on a Big Twist worthy of Shyamalan, but land closer to "The Village" than they do "The Sixth Sense." 

The "gotcha" reveal also becomes the film's anchor and drags it down into a pool of implausibilities. It reveals the film's shallow intentions, and the way it uses slavery as a shock tactic, and its attempts to hold a mirror to today are surface level at best.  

"Antebellum" opens with an audacious tracking shot that shows Bush and Renz' skill with creating arresting visuals. A female slave is escaping on foot, and is chased down by men on horses, who lasso her neck and drag her back. It's in-your-face, unforgiving imagery and gives "Antebellum" an immediate punch. 

But the sting soon dissipates as there's little behind it in terms of character or narrative depth. We see Monae's Eden deal with the ills of slavery, and Jack Huston (giving off creepy Jack White vibes) and Eric Lange both dig in as the noxious, seething plantation heads.

Jena Malone plays Elizabeth, a woman who takes particular pleasure in showering disdain on Eden and the other women workers. But these are strictly cutout characters, so the situations don't carry the same impact as the striking, sickening depictions of slavery in, say, "12 Years a Slave," where viewers were more invested because of the film's human element.  

Smash cut to the present and Monae is Veronica, a successful talking head on cable news who gives speeches to adoring audiences about the ills of "the patriarchy" (her talk doesn't get much more involved than that) and has a great home, a loving husband (Marque Richardson) and a sweet little girl. 

Gabourey Sidibe is beamed in from another movie in a different genre made in an alternate universe as Veronica's sassy friend Dawn, who takes great pleasure in dressing down a suitor at a swanky restaurant before handing him a card with her phone number on it. When she disappears into the night, blasting Lizzo in the backseat of an Uber, you sort of wish the camera would follow her character on her journey rather than returning to Monae's.

When, where and how Monae's character's two worlds intersect is the film's raison d'être, and without giving too much away, the groaning will be loud and sustained. Moreover, the reveal makes "Antebellum" a one trick pony whose one trick isn't all that great.

The film's final images raise more questions than answers, and what could have been a powerful and timely look at race, history and the still-lingering atrocities of the past instead becomes a shoulder shrug. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," reads an opening quote from Faulkner. But it's all too easy to get past "Antebellum." 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Antebellum'

GRADE: C-

Rated R: for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references

Running time: 105 minutes

On VOD