“Antebellum” is the worst mainstream movie release of the year.
In a way, the fact that COVID-19 forced distributor Lionsgate to pull it from cinemas, and release it on video on-demand, is probably a benefit to the travesty of film. This way, more people will be more willing to hand over a little bit of money out of pure curiosity over its marketed twist. I’m here to tell you, this movie lives and dies by the twist — and what a painful death it is.
The movie opens with some horrifying imagery of black slaves attempting to escape a town in the Confederate south. Played out in slow motion against haunting music, Confederate soldiers run down a female slave and lasso her around the neck with a hard tug. The chase is contrast against a Black man with a collar around his neck screaming as the woman is eventually shot and killed. It looks like a modern version of “Roots,” if it was overseen by a music video director.
The horrifying images continue as the movie shifts to a Black slave woman, Eden, beaten and branded by a Confederate general for attempting to escape. The next day, the slaves are back to working in the fields in what is a punishment plantation, where they can’t speak or act out — lest they be burned alive in a nearby furnace.
The images are timely as ever in 2020, as Blacks across the country continue to march and protest against police brutality. Several parts of the movie often play out like racist torture porn, as Black characters are beaten and tortured — all while main character Eden plots her revenge. It borders on disturbing exploitation, rather than trying to prove a point. And then the movie turns on its head.
Eden is actually Veronica, a famous modern day author whose latest book focuses on the injustices Black Americans have faced since the country’s inception. She meets up with a pair of friends, including the over-the-top Dawn, played by “Precious” breakout star Gabourey Sidibe. The trio go out for a night on the town that sees them mistreated by almost every single white person they find — in what seems to be some sort of exaggerated, bordering on parody, attempt at showcasing racism. Bad things happen before the movie shifts back to the plantation and Eden’s suffering.
The film’s twist — like the film itself — is absolute garbage — so insultingly dense and insulting that M. Night Shyamalan is shaking his head somewhere. The fact that the entire marketing campaign paints this movie as a horror experience centered around this shocking ending adds even more insult to the injury of having to sit through 100 minutes of aimlessly plodding tripe that could be better spent watching the Atlanta Falcons choke another football game. A random Donald Trump stump speech has more coherent thought and purpose than “Antebellum.”
This movie insults the intelligence of the audience on a near constant basis as it tries to use slick direction and exploitative imagery to elicit a response beyond disgust and the urge to look at your watch to see how much time you have left to waste. There’s nothing of substance in “Antebellum,” despite how it tries to use rape and sexual abuse as a pivotal character development moment for Eden — because we’ve never seen any movie try to use rape to help push a woman’s story forward. It’s disgusting.
There’s nary an original idea expressed — either in the script or in the visuals — beyond shock and repulsion. Everything seen on screen — as heavy as the imagery and story elements could and should be — is about as hollow and shallow as a children’s breakfast cereal. The only thing more insulting than the film’s attempt at a twist and subversion, is how it attempts to use brutal images of Black men and women beaten, raped and murdered to entertain and enamor with horror trappings. Stay away from “Antebellum.” It doesn’t deserve anyone’s time or money.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.