Antebellum, review: Janelle Monaé’s time-travelling slavery film is jaw-droppingly crass

  • Dirs: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz. Cast: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Gabourey Sidibe, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Tongayi Chirisa. 15 cert, 105 min

Antebellum tries to provide a clever, winking twist on the horrors of slavery, which is up there in the Bad Ideas stakes with, let’s say, a first-person shooter video-game inspired by the Columbine massacre. This unholy mishmash of plantation drama and M Night Shyamalan-esque “gotcha” thriller traffics in self-satisfied provocation, and gets us nowhere.

Everything about it is grim, jerry-rigged and unconvincing. The film seems inordinately proud to have found one of William Faulkner’s best-known quotes – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – to serve as an epigram, and sticks it up front in a twiddly font, like a pretentious school essay.

We begin somewhere in Louisiana at an unspecified date, with slaves in the cotton fields being shot for insubordination. Men in Confederate uniform march around this estate, participating in systematised rape and the branding of people such as Eden (Janelle Monáe), a dazed newcomer fresh off the cart. This first half-hour is all sweat, screaming and kitschy sunsets through Spanish moss, suggesting a horror-show pastiche of 12 Years a Slave with the levels of crass exploitation dialled up. The bombastic use of slow-motion alone should have the film sent to a cinematic-taste tribunal. 

Eden is brutalised, and schemes her getaway, but seems trapped in a nightmare. And yet suddenly it’s the present day, and she’s Dr Veronica Henley, a sociologist woken up by a mobile phone ringing. We get 30 minutes or so of this puzzling respite, in which we recognise the face of Elizabeth (Jena Malone) on a Skype call: she’s gone from being the cruel plantation mistress to a malevolent executive with a mile-wide racist streak.

It’s hard to avoid spilling the narrative trickery here – and heaven knows, it’s rarely been more tempting to call a film’s stupidity out with unapologetic spoilers. I’ll meet it halfway: it’s clear by the final third that we’ve not been occupying two dimensions, or even two timeframes, just one bird-brained conceit which wants to insist on slavery’s lingering stamp – and fluffs any credible argument it might otherwise have made. 

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