[Screen It]


(2020) (Janelle MonŠe, Jack Huston) (R)

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Horror: An African-American woman plots her escape while being held as a slave along with others at a Confederate plantation.

Eden (JANELLE MONŃE) is a slave on a southern plantation where the owner's wife, Elizabeth (JENA MALONE), allows her daughter to name new incoming slaves to their "reformer plantation." While the confederate General (ERIC LANGE) is in charge, Captain Jasper (JACK HUSTON) manages the day to day operations and tells the newcomers, such as Julia (KIERSEY CLEMONS), that one of the rules is that no slaves speak without permission. Shocked by what's happened to her, Julia asks Eden how they plan on getting out of there, a sentiment shared by fellow slave Eli (TONGAYI CHIRISA). But having unsuccessfully already tried that, and now directly owned by the General, Eden knows they must lay low until the time is right to make their move.

Flash-forward to the present day and Veronica Henley (JANELLE MONŃE) is a married mother, sociologist, academic, and activist who often speaks of the horrors of slavery still affecting modern-day descendants of that systemic subjugation of black people. She's been invited to speak at a conference in New Orleans where she experiences more subtle racism, something her outspoken black friend, Dawn (GABOUREY SIDIBE), confronts head-on, while their white friend Sarah (LILY COWLES) hasn't noticed any problems at the hotel.

When the story returns to the past, Eden tries to figure out what her location is and how and when to make her move to escape from her confinement.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

I understand the need for movie trailers as they're the main source of advertising for new films. And I'm sure it's a tough job editing those as you (hopefully) want to avoid giving away too much of the plot while still providing enough footage to entice potential viewers to pony up the moola to watch the offering.

Aside from featuring beloved performers, the best thing in terms of enticement is something shocking or at least unusual and unexpected. Such was the case with the first trailer for "Antebellum" released last fall that featured scenes of American slavery interspersed with contemporary footage of modern-day life.

It was well done in crafting a sense of uncertainty and dread, but it featured one shot that pretty much gave everything away. So much so that despite not having seen that or any other trailer for this film since then, as I sat down to watch and review this film, the first thing I wrote down was my guess for the "big twist."

And I was right, no doubt due to that one shot included in the trailer, but also M. Night Shyamalan having already done pretty much the same "gotcha" reveal in one of his films. I'll avoid revealing that or the shot from the trailer, but unless you're seeing this flick with absolutely no knowledge of what it's about, I doubt you'll have a hard time seeing what's coming.

All of which is too bad since there's some interesting thematic elements in play as well as loads of potential about how all of this could have played out. If anything, it's certainly timely considering the focus on racism today and some people trying to keep the spirit of the Confederacy and all of its trappings alive.

The flick -- from first-time feature film writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz -- begins with a long tracking shot through a Civil War-era southern plantation where we see slaves doing their thing. That is, except for Eden (Janelle MonŠe) who first appears to be dead as draped over a horse. But she looks up in time to see white men struggling with another slave (Tongayi Chirisa) followed by what's presumably his wife trying to run off, only to be lassoed around the neck, downed, and then shot by one of the Confederate officers (Jack Huston).

We soon learn this is a "reformer plantation" with strict rules, and that Eden is now the property of the never fully named General (Eric Lange) who promptly brands her as belonging to him. Newcomers, such as Julia (Kiersey Clemons) are brought in as the plantation owner's wife (Jena Malone) allows her daughter to name them, and Eden tries to get Julia and her "what are we doing to do/what's the plan" frantic mindset to calm down lest bad things happen.

And then, after the General lies asleep next to Eden after raping her, a cell phone is heard ringing and we cut to modern-day where Veronica (also MonŠe) wakes up next to her husband who wonders if she's just had another bad dream. Since the studio decided to show that two different timelines are present in the film, that's not really a spoiler, and at this point, we're supposed to wonder if indeed that was a dream, maybe Eden somehow imagining a better future for herself or her descendants, or some sort of yet to be explained supernatural occurrence.

Other faces from the past show up as well, including a bit featuring the young girl from before showing up in an elevator with Veronica, still in her antebellum-style dress and creepily shushing her. The author, academic, and social activist hyphenate chalks that up to weird stuff -- including subdued but nonetheless still racist behavior she's been experiencing in New Orleans on a business trip.

But she's more focused on having a good evening out with her best friends (played by Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles). This section of the flick goes on far too long and while it rightly shows that racism still exists, I would have preferred additional spooky moments rather than the eventual reveal of how the two timelines are seemingly connected. After that, we're back to the past and the focus on how Eden plans on escaping from her predicament.

I'm not sure if the filmmakers, at this point in the story, expect us to be blown away by the big secret that comes at the very end, but having already called it right from the beginning, I wish those who made the trailer hadn't essentially given that away long before I saw the full flick.

Decent, but likely better had it somehow leaned into the supernatural rather than follow the now all too predictable Shyamalan playbook, "Antebellum" certainly proves the point of its opening quote from Faulkner about the past not just never being dead but also not even being past. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 15, 2020 / Posted September 18, 2020

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