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‘Antebellum’: Well-made drama on slavery’s horrors builds to an exasperating ending

After all the sadistic violence, the big twist is a big bust.

A horribly mistreated slave named Eden is one of two roles played by Janelle Monae in “Antebellum.”
Lionsgate

From “The Crying Game” to “The Usual Suspects,” from “The Sixth Sense” to “Get Out,” we love those movies with the Big Reveal that stops us in our tracks and has us exclaiming, “Wait, WHAT NOW!”

“Antebellum” swings for the fences with a Big Reveal — but it’s an epic strikeout built on a foundation of sadistic violence and it rips off a certain film from nearly two decades ago, leaving us feeling frustrated and conned. That this is such a well-made production, with passionate and strong performances from the stellar cast, makes it all the more exasperating. What a missed opportunity.

Writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz open “Antebellum” with an extended and skillfully rendered tracking shot on a Southern plantation that has become quarters for Confederate troops during the Civil War. A little white girl happily skips through the fields as a Black man in an iron yoke screams in agony while a captain on horseback loops a noose around the neck of a Black woman who is presumably trying to escape. She is murdered.

This is a horror movie even before it announces itself as a horror movie.

Shortly after that brutal sequence (which, like many other scenes, is juxtaposed against “magic hour” sunsets), we’re introduced to Janelle Monae’s Eden, a slave who is literally branded for perceived insubordination. Not long after that horrific moment, Kiersey Clemons’ Julia, a slave who is pregnant, is beaten in her cabin by a Confederate soldier who lashes out at her after she suggests he’s not like his comrades and actually has some compassion in his heart. This film is filled with such scenes of racist brutality, to the point of feeling exploitative.

For 40 minutes, “Antebellum” is locked on that plantation, with some of the slaves plotting an escape while the monstrous plantation owners and equally despicable Confederate soldiers subject them to unimaginably cruel treatment. “We are descendants of the gods,” says a Southern general at a dinner gathering of the troops. “This land has always been ours. Our nationalist state will not be stolen from us by these traitors to America.”

This is but one instance of heavy-handed symbolism and references to our current world. One Confederate soldier calls another “snowflake.” Southern troops marching in the night chant the Nazi refrain “blood and soil,” a la the white nationalists at Charlottesville. A statue of Robert E. Lee is used as a violent visual punchline.

In scenes set in the present day, Gabourey Sidibe is hilarious as a friend of the successful author also played by Janelle Monae.
Lionsgate

And then, in jarring fashion, “Antebellum” cuts to present day, with Monae as Veronica Henley, a successful and celebrated author living in a beautiful home with a loving husband (Marque Richardson) and a young daughter (London Boyce). While touring the country promoting her latest book, “Shedding the Coping Persona,” Veronica meets up with her best friends Sarah (Lily Cowles) and Dawn (a hilarious Gabourey Sidibe), who endure not-so-subtle racism, from the hostess who gives them the worst table in the restaurant to the white waiter who responds to their Champagne order by suggesting they go for something more moderately priced, like Prosecco. Even more disturbing are Veronica’s interactions with a woman from the South (Jena Malone) who looks exactly like the plantation owner’s wife, and a little white girl who tells Veronica she’ll get in trouble for talking — conjuring up memories of the slaves in the First Act who were forbidden to even speak to one another.

Are we in a time travel story? An episode of “The Twilight Zone”? The answers are revealed in the Third Act, when we return to the plantation and the story of Eden. Along the way, “Antebellum” shamelessly borrows from “The Shining” and the aforementioned film from the early 2000s, culminating with a rousing and admittedly dramatically satisfying (albeit bat-bleep crazy) series of events, followed by a borderline ludicrous epilogue that gives us just enough time to realize the contrived and implausible nature of everything that just transpired.