Antebellum

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Antebellum
"Far from being a merely polemical film, this emerges as a trickier, less easily defined piece of art."

Opening with William Faulkner's famous lines 'The past is never dead. It's not even past,' Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's blistering mystery thriller blends its tenses even as it builds its tension. It beckons the viewer in with the romance which, to many Americans, is still conjured up by the title, with golden light and green fields and a rustle of colourful skirts, only to draw back and reveal a landscape where white men on horseback leer downwards at cowed black cotton pickers. You can't daydream about the past unless you're willing to face the brutal reality - but of course, it's precisely that brutality that some people want back.

Are the events that we see in these opening scenes a piece of the past or something else? When her alarm goes off, Veronica (Janelle Monáe) wakes up in the present day. Her partner soothes her, asks if it was another nightmare. She doesn't have time to worry about it. Over breakfast, they and their small daughter watch her taking on a right wing pundit on the news. They agree that she wins the argument, but of course it attracts hostility. In a subsequent video call, a snide white woman packs in the dog whistles. There's a difficult balance for the directors to strike here, getting the point across without overdoing it, showing it like it is without inspiring disbelief in sheltered white viewers - but this is, refreshingly, a film not overly concerned with its white audience, and unafraid to lay its cards on the table.

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In her elegant apartment with her family around her, where hate can be shut out by closing a laptop, Veronica is pretty safe, so it's telling that even here, the nightmare of the past haunts her. Out in the wider world, she's more vulnerable. She's speaking at a conference on the importance of ditching the coping persona - of dropping a placatory approach to injustice, ceasing to wait for one's moment, just getting up and sorting it out. The enthusiastic audience, however, may not be the only ones watching her. It soon becomes apparent to the viewer that something is seriously amiss. The veneer of civility protecting her from the horrors of the past is very thin. The only thing that's different about people then and people now, the film makes clear, is who we imagine ourselves and others to be.

The conscious effort to imagine this territory is something starkly absent from the mainstream of US cinema. The wake-up call of 12 Years A Slave had to come from outside, but it is a potent and necessary thing for US filmmakers to address this issue with enough funding and support to do it well, and the more so with a female-centred narrative. Although men's stories are also addressed, there is a particular focus on the treatment of enslaved women and on the misogynoir which remains very much a part of the present. importantly, however, this is not simply a story about victimhood or about black women who need to be saved by others. Monáe gives her heroine beauty, elegance, wit and ferocity, reminding us that the worst kinds of incivility can be met with more than civil resistance. Gabourey Sidibe, meanwhile, is delightful as a different kind of modern woman - one who has liberated herself from cloying social taboos and demands to have a good time.

Moments of comedy are essential in a story which, elsewhere, is agonisingly bleak. There are several abrupt changes of tone in the course of the narrative but Bush and Renz handle them with aplomb and, in doing so, remind us of the particular ability of prejudice to seize control of our emotions, distorting our perspectives. It's a film which examines the psychological aspects of slavery and of learned submissiveness as part of a minority group without losing sight of the physical violence which always remains close to the surface. Yet there are also stealthier elements to the narrative, so that far from being a merely polemical film, this emerges as a trickier, less easily defined piece of art. It's rooted in the tradition of the Southern Gothic - often fertile ground for outsiders - inviting us to question when we are as much as where. In the elevator, a small white girl in a pretty white dress urges Veronica to be silent. Where has she come from? Standing in the corridor, she might make you think of The Shining, but she's an echo of something else.

The technical work here is excellent. Pedro Luque's cinematography carries us between decades and centuries, prompting a growing awareness of the illusory. Mary Zophres' costumes are a marvel to behold. There's a boldness about every aspect of the production which gives it both authority and charisma. The score by Roman GianArthur Irvin and Nate 'Rocket' Wonder is the icing on the cake, giving the action scenes an epic quality that will have you on the edge of your seat. If you have struggled to understand why flags and statues matter, this film is a wake-up call. If you have always known, and felt the weight of the past bearing down on you, then here, at last, is a battle cry.

See it on the biggest screen you can. It's a moment in cinema, and you'd be a fool to miss it.


Antebellum is on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD 2 August from Lionsgate UK

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2021
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An author of books abut race and justice finds herself drawn back to a brutal past through dreams and perhaps something worse.
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Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

Writer: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

Starring: Janelle MonáeEric LangeJena Malone, Jack Huston, Tongayi Chirisa, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson

Year: 2020

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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