If not for a pandemic effectively shutting down movie theaters and delaying release plans, Antebellum would undoubtedly have been one of the most watched and talked about films of the year, an unflinching, poignant exploration into the real horrors of slavery and racism that are at the heart of America, and all the more timely and prescient amid the ongoing national race reckoning that erupted into the streets across the country in 2020.
Antebellum is written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, a pair of visionaries who have somehow succeeded at making both a socially relevant horror film and a gritty adult superhero movie all in one hell of a dynamic feature debut that stabs hard at the issues it’s addressing with unrelenting passion. This film is a bold statement of intent from a filmmaking team that we’re all going to be hearing a lot more about in the coming years.
The opening shot is an epic single take that begins in the picturesque front yard of a massive southern plantation and then the camera glides gracefully into the backyard to expose the evil going on behind the main house, as a gang of Confederate soldiers punish slaves for attempting to escape.
While it’s presented with some of the most beautiful cinematography you’ll ever see, the first five minutes is not at all easy to watch, nor is the first 38 minutes for that matter, as the viewer is placed firmly in the pre-Civil War deep South, in the blazing heat and under the impenetrable mercilessness of the slaveowners and their employees at a “reformer” plantation. There are hints that something’s not exactly normal, even for this warped era of history, on this particular plantation, but it’s unclear just what, especially as the brutality and torture continues to intensify with each passing minute.
Janelle Monae is outstanding, powerful, heartbreaking, and badass. Initially seen as the slave “Eden,” she speaks almost no dialogue through the first act, but her performance is already award-worthy. When we meet her again as modern day successful author and activist Veronica Henley, it’s an unexpected jolt through time, but the payoff is worth it, and the true genius of her work is only really realized when you rewatch the film knowing how it all ends.
The film opens with a quote by William Falkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This theme is layered throughout the film, and the bonus featurette “A Hint of Horror: The Clues of Antebellum” showcases some of the numerous Easter eggs that Bush and Renz have placed throughout the film, re-enforcing the theme and foreshadowing the “big twist”.
Another featurette included among the bonus material on the Blu-ray release is a five-minute look at that opening long shot and everything it took to logistically and physically pull it off, complete with side-by-side shots of it being filmed with the finished scene.
There is no feature length directors commentary track, but there is thankfully a very informative and in-depth two-part 66-minute documentary, The History in Front of Us: Deconstructing Antebellum, in which Bush and Renz explain that the idea originated in a dream Bush had one night, which became a short story that later became the screenplay for this film. They say it was never a question that they were going to direct their own script, and it is an audacious feature debut, to say the least.
It’s also pretty amazing, and in keeping with the overall theme that the past is never dead, that the filmmakers actually shot the plantation scenes with the exact same original lenses that were used to film Gone with the Wind, and as a result Antebellum has the same look as the 1939 classic but shows the realities of slavery. They even filmed on a real plantation, the only one in the country with all of its original slave quarters still in place just as they were. The cast said the weight of what they were shooting and where they were shooting it was not lost on any of them.
There are also five deleted scenes included that mainly serve to further illustrate the verbal, emotional, and physical torture Eden endures. The official theatrical trailers are also included in the special features.
The true power of the film is not in the surely to be divisive twist, which horror fans will probably see coming early on anyway, but in its authentic, harrowing portrayal of the slavery of yesterday and the lingering racism of today. It tackles head on the issues that too many of us shy away from, right up to those that have led thousands to the streets in protest in 2020, which the directors could never have predicted would perfectly align this film with this moment in history as it has, making Antebellum the must-see film of the year.
You can watch two clips from the documentary below.
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