I’ve been looking forward to this one for over a year now. This is true of many movies at the moment as several of those that we’re getting trailered ready for release twelve months ago are still to be screened. Here in the UK we are still waiting to see if A Promising Young Woman lives up to its promise, I actually had tickets for A Quiet Place Part 2 booked last April but I’m still holding my breath on that one and I’m beginning to wonder if it will ever be time for No Time To Die.
I remember thinking the promos made Antebellum look like some kind of tantalisingly trippy, spooky, psychological time travel mystery but having now seen it I’ve discovered that this is not really what it is at all. In fact I’ve since gone back to look at the trailer that initially piqued my interest I can find it. There are a selection of trailers on IMDb and YouTube but I swear none of them are the one I watched ahead of The Invisible Man and Dark Waters all those months ago. Whether they have changed tack on how they are selling this, whether it is the Mandela Effect or if I just dreamt the whole thing up, here we now are with the full movie finally available on Sky and Now TV.
Antebellum is actually a fairly straight thriller. It pretends at being something else but ultimately it doesn’t play the surreal or supernatural card and oddly ends up being less believable for it. What you do get is two timelines evidently playing out a century apart with Janelle Monáe taking centre stage in both but the reveal of how the two characters are related is surprisingly, perhaps disappointingly or maybe audaciously literal. Whether the expectation was set up by me or them though, the question is was it worth the wait.
Some of the reviews would have you believe not. The opinion is generally that the two parts of the story jar and that the film is over ambitious with smart ideas that it can’t follow up on. I can see these criticisms but I felt Antebellum succeeded more than it failed. What is does do nicely is show how the extreme cruelties experienced by ‘Eden’ Monáe as a Black woman in Civil War Louisiana are translated to ‘Veronica’ Monáe in modern day New Orleans. Having shown the horrors of the past at the start, the film introduces hints of these same abhorrent attitudes in the present and they don’t feel so unlikely.
In this the film’s delay may have helped it as after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations and toppling of statues in May and June last year the movie lands in a different context. The prevalence of contemporary racism, the dangers of not learning from history and the refusal to condemn once celebrated figures that fuelled so many conversations last Summer are the very themes this film is built around and it is impossible to dismiss the importance of this message in a way it wouldn’t have been even a year ago. The movie loses some of its subtly at the end but it is essentially saying look at what did happen in Civil War USA and what could happen now in Trump’s divided America.
Janelle Monáe is great as the two contrasting versions of herself and while there are some pacing issues with the narrative(s) and a couple of performances that seem unbelievably OTT in very different ways (I mean you Gabourey Sidibe and Jena Malone) to the point that they almost derail the seriousness of the message, that message does get through.
There may be a better version of this film, maybe it is the one I imagined when I imagined that trailer, but this version still has plenty to recommend it and I respect all those involved for putting this version together. There is no disappointment here.
The Ripley Factor:
Antebellum is chiefly focussed on race issues but in its exploration of these it also covers gender ones. So much of what Eden/Veronica faces is related to her status as a woman and she meets all of it with strength if not always with victory. It is interesting that we are able to distance ourselves from what she suffers from the Confederate officers as this is history but the film snatches that away giving the power back to this that time has take away.
Ultimately we see women standing up against oppression and if there moments where we might be punching the air, momentarily forgetting the truth behind some of what happens on screen, again the balance is sufficiently maintained.