Antebellum (2020)

I’m going to hate myself for saying this, but there’s something VERY Jordan Peele about this film. I know how that sounds, “oh, so all horror films starring black people are Jordan Peele ones now?”. Obviously that’s not the case (it just seems like it because the media can only focus on one black director at a time), but this film is very reminiscent of some of his work. Particularly in the use of music to turn seemingly idyllic shots into horror ones. That’s where the similarities end, this is nowhere near as good as Peele’s work.

In fact, this is actually quite poor. The pacing is one reason, it takes over 40 minutes for the film to introduce a major plot point. This meant it was weird watching for me as I remember watching the trailer and being like “okay this is set in the civil war era, but didn’t she come from modern day and just wake up there? Is that not part of the story?”. And it is, it just doesn’t really go into the modern world until too late in the film. It then stays there for a long time. I get what they were going for but all it really achieved was taking you out of the narrative of the plantation.

As I said, I get the logic behind doing it, horror movies need to start with the horror, particularly for modern audiences who don’t care too much for story and character. So if you had all these non-horror moments in there means you wouldn’t get the audience in the correct mood for the film. But doing it this way means you get taken out, and it really disrupts the flow. I’m not entire sure how you’d fix that, either cut it in half and still put it at the start so her waking up in the plantation is the inciting incident, or you could possibly intercut it, so it doesn’t happen all at once, but in small sections. So you have both narratives happening at the same time.

Also, the way it’s done means you guess the ending. I somehow already knew the ending, but even if I hadn’t, the nature of the flashbacks would have told me. If it started with her in the modern way, then she goes to sleep in a hotel and wakes up in the plantation, then there would have been a “oh maybe it was supernatural” element to it. As it is, you know exactly what happened, and it takes far too long to get there.

Having a THIRTY MINUTE flashback scene is overkill, and really doesn’t work. The writers/directors of this film have primarily worked in shorts, and writing for those is very different from feature length. You can’t anchor the entire thing on one killer scene, and you need to pay particular attention to making sure you have a long narrative, and not just a series of scenes.

There is a fantastic story to be told in this film. About how white America is still haunted by the sins of a past it refuses to acknowledge (it’s very telling how Americans describe the Civil War as “a war to free the slaves”, rather than “a war to keep slaves”, which is just as accurate). About how modern racism is still a thing, and just as cruel and sadistic as it was back then. About how the nostalgia for certain time periods is anchored in “back when those people knew their place” (British people are just as guilty for this btw, forever waxing lyrical about the good days of the empire). The film does make those points, but is more interesting in making those points, than building a narrative around those points.

Onto the good: Janelle Monae gives a great performance, definitely the films best, you are with her character every step of the way. The idea of a racist being dragged by a rope around their neck and being killed by hitting a confederate statue is incredibly smart. As I alluded to earlier, the music is great. Plus the moment of her riding through a “battle” on horseback is incredible, and just what the film needs. It’s a shame as I was really looking forward to this ever since I saw the first trailer. Looked like it was going to be an incredible piece of social satire with a captivating story. So fair to say, the result is incredibly disappointing, and should have been guessed by how the US release came and went and I heard no buzz about it.

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