Antebellum. Highly polarized, although, not as severely as the opinions of systematic racism and oppression but critically divided – as far as a film goes. This is a highly stylized film, high-brow horror if you will, ambitious in many ways from writing to structure to cinematography. Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you that I’m here for this film. This is a work of art, an ingenious way to show the reality of the past that still lingers in so many ways today. A devastating look at hundreds of years of pain and suffering that for some absurd reason cannot be remedied.
This is the story of Veronica Henley, a talented and powerful advocate and writer. Leaving her family to embark on a tour in support of her book, she is faced with the horrifying reality of her past. Dealing with current issues she must fight to rectify the future.
Starting off with a William Faulkner quote that says “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.
Perfectly suited for this film, one message and one message only, not to be buried under subtext and ambiguity, it follows this path all the way and hammers it home – sometimes maybe a little heavy-handed but rightfully so. The first 40 minutes of the movie is a heart-wrenching depiction of slavery, bringing us right into a reformation plantation, amidst the tall blades of grass and the fields of Malvaceae, precisely of the cotton variety. We stagger through a long, grueling slow-motion sequence of a woman being hunted down by Confederate soldiers and murdered in front of her husband. Engulfed in every little despicable detail, the rape, and abuse, the spewing of racial slurs, the domination that one side believes they are entitled to over the other. We are fully invested in these characters before this film does a complete 180°, from period piece to modern-day telling of the same exact story. Slavery does not exist in this modern age the same way it did during the Civil War but when this movie flips, it actualizes the inconceivable realities that have plagued North America for centuries, even through all the growth and education, it still rears its violently ugly head.
We are introduced to Veronica in a new light. She is greeted by her lovely husband, Nick (Marque Richardson), and her beautiful daughter Kennedi (London Boyce) in an absolutely immaculate home to create the perfect family. She has written a very important book called “Shedding the Coping Persona”, based on the need for black women to stand up and be heard and is now promoting it across America, with a few of her colleagues and management team. She is powerful and free, shooting down some asinine argument from some old white dude about “conflating race with common sense” over a televised radio show. After embarking on her book tour we are introduced to some more characters as we get an up-close and personal look at how this tour will unfold. Veronica’s friend Dawn, played by Gabourey Sidibe, who of course brightens the mood and does a damn good job at it. She is beautiful, charming but sassy and aggressive, confident, but what is it about this character that doesn’t endure the same experience as our lead? Because veronica almost feels made up of all these same characteristics. Is it because she leads the charge by vocalizing her concerns and empowering many of the black community? Maybe there is a juxtaposition of Gabourey and Sarah (Lily Cowles), where Veronica resembles both of them, being that Veronica doesn’t fall into any one stereotype that befalls either of these women. It’s all up for debate and I really love the conversation this movie can and will evoke.
Why can’t a movie slap you in the face with its message? We always get up for Marvel films and big, dumb summer blockbusters where we check our brains at the door but we bat an eye at a film that has a solid and important message, which has all of the innards of a fantastic and sophisticated horror thriller. Costume design, set design, performances, cinematography, brilliant dialogue. It’s all here and in plethora. You can take this film in a couple of ways as well, I think. On a surface level, the film is as it appears, but it also could be that this was a brutal interpersonal vision of the experience she was having, maybe this is the way she saw the events that were actually happening to her and related it to the events of the past. What is actually happening to Veronica? Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz do an incredible job at blurring these lines until the very end. These are the burning questions that linger long after the movie is done and bring up interesting talking points.
I walk carefully around this film, I do not want to spoil this for anyone because what divides this film for the masses in many ways, are the comparisons to an early M. Night Shyamalan film which, yes, there is The Village-esque set design and moody tone but I really don’t think this film is wholeheartedly trying to throw you for a loop as Shyamalan did with The Sixth Sense. This is not that. A 28% on Rotton Tomatoes, a 5.6/10 on IMDb… this is obscene, we need to give this film its fair do without shamelessly comparing it to other films that don’t provide the same message. Watch this picture with an open mind, watch it as its own stand-alone film, let it take you for a ride, and invest in it emotionally as this film invests in the chances it takes and pays them off in a big way. With masterful performances by Janelle Monáe, Kiersey Clemons, Jena Malone, and Eric Lange, maybe this film turns into a cult classic, hailed by the ones who see through the way it’s been treated in the last five months, but don’t let the haters deter you away. This film is worth your time.
“Sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear. Things are not always what they appear to be.”