Heavy-handed and glibly effective, “Antebellum” is a post-"Get Out" horror film and a lesser one, a movie that uses racial issues to enhance genre filmmaking rather than the other way around. That said, it’s a pretty good “Twilight Zone” episode.
And it stars Janelle Monáe, which many more movies should. The singer-turned-actress has been a fringe benefit of films like “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” but has never held down a feature on her own; she has more than enough star wattage for the task, even if the knotty plot of “Antebellum” works overtime to dim it.
Monáe plays Eden, a slave in the Civil War-era South. The movie, written and directed by the multiracial duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, opens with misty slow-motion shots of white plantation life and then dollies behind the Big House to where the horrors lie. Overseen by a rape-minded General (Eric Lange) and his sadistic Captain (Jack Huston), the plantation rules decree absolute silence on the part of the slaves and whippings for those who disobey. Eden, who has just tried to escape when the film opens, is brought back to her shack for a beating and a branding with a hot iron. These scenes teeter between the historical high-mindedness of “12 Years a Slave” and the low audience-baiting of torture porn.
And then? Then a cellphone rings and Eden wakes up in 2019. Here’s she’s Veronica Henley, an academic and best-selling author (“Shedding the Coping Persona”) living in upscale comfort in Washington, D.C., with an adoring husband (Marque Richardson) and daughter (London Boyce). What just happened? What connects these women and their time periods? There’s an alluring resonance to the temporal twinning that works as long as it remains unexplained. What has changed for a Black woman in America since Emancipation? More critically, what hasn’t?
Veronica travels to New Orleans to speak on a panel and then hits the town with two friends, the ebullient Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe from “Precious,” who’s delightful) and the sardonic Sarah (Lili Cowles). There are micro-slights from desk clerks and restaurant hostesses that blend uneasily with creepier twinges: an anonymous bouquet welcoming Veronica “home,” a hotel room invasion by a honey-voiced belle (Jena Malone) while the heroine is out with her friends.
I won’t say how this section climaxes but suffice it to say that the two worlds ultimately collide and Veronica finds herself back on that plantation, as if 160 years of struggle and progress had been just a wish. Around now the filmmakers start dropping hints that allow any reasonably smart viewer to put the puzzle pieces together and understand what’s happening. There is an explanation and it simultaneously resolves “Antebellum,” gives it a topical spin, and cheapens it. The movie bludgeons you all the way to its “oh, wow” end reveal, and where a movie like “Get Out” opened the door to real, complex truths about American society and white behavior, this one seems content to slam the door on your fingers and call it Deep.
Still, it’s refreshing to see Monáe show what she can do as a lead, and her performance as Veronica possesses a wit and savvy that complement the performer’s natural poise. It’s that wit that make the final scenes of “Antebellum” more than a Tarantino-style revenger’s play, one designed to get the audience whooping instead of thinking. (“Get Out” did both.) With luck, Monáe will be cast in more roles as smart as she is. This one is merely clever — a grimly “provocative” entertainment whose greater meanings are gone with the wind.
Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Starring Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston, Gabourey Sidibe, Jena Malone. Available on video on demand. 104 minutes. R (disturbing violent content, language, sexual references).