Desperate to Be Relevant
New York magazine|September 14 - 27, 2020
Desperate to Be Relevant
Antebellum is cinema’s latest failed attempt to speak to “the moment.” ANTEBELLUM is out September 18.
Alison Willmore

ANTEBELLUM

A woman tries to escape a slave plantation in the present day.

THE MOVIE Antebellum opens with an intricate tracking shot that winds through a southern slave plantation. It’s late afternoon, and the light slanting through the trees is as golden as the dress worn by a young girl picking flowers by the white-pillared main house. It’s an aggressively bucolic tableau meant to recall Gone With the Wind, complete with enslaved people bustling around the grounds alongside Confederate soldiers. Then the camera finds its way into a clearing, where an escape attempt is being viciously thwarted. A woman’s desperate sprint toward the tree line is presented in extravagant slow motion, capturing every panicked contortion of her face as she’s dragged to the ground and murdered. The violence is filmed with the same uncanny lushness as everything that has come before, seemingly to emphasize the horror that has always been at the heart of plantation nostalgia. The effect ends up being the opposite— an indulgence in the brutality of the moment, which the film has arranged to unfold during the aesthetically pleasing glow of magic hour.

For members of the media, Antebellum begins with a message from filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, priming the audience for what it is about to watch. Introductions to early screenings are not unheard of—work on something in a relative vacuum for months, and the vulnerability of finally putting it in front of strangers can prompt one to all sorts of last-minute efforts to reel in viewers. Antebellum, starring Janelle Monáe, had been building buzz since late 2019 with mysterious trailers that touted its connection to Get Out, with which it shares a pair of producers. The film had been slated for theaters before the pandemic pushed it to VOD, but Bush and Renz wanted to talk about more than just the scuppered big-screen release of their directorial debut. In the video, they bluntly proclaim their ambitions in making Antebellum, which were no less than to construct “the movie of and for this moment.”

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September 14 - 27, 2020