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'Antebellum' review: Poor pacing, confused screenplay kills horror-thriller's potential

Janelle Monáe and London Boyce in "Antebellum."

Janelle Monáe and London Boyce in "Antebellum." Credit: Lionsgate/Matt Kennedy

PLOT An African American woman finds herself trapped on a Southern slave plantation.

CAST Janelle Monae, Gabourey Sidibe, Jack Huston

RATED R (violence and brutality)

LENGTH 1:45

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE Poor pacing and a confused screenplay keep this horror-thriller from living up to its potential.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote William Faulkner, the great chronicler of the racist South. His oft-quoted words provide a theme for "Antebellum," a horror-thriller about a modern-day Black woman who finds herself enslaved on what seems to be a Southern plantation during the Civil War. The debut feature of writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, "Antebellum" has a lot on its mind but, unfortunately, is not at all sure how to say it.

Its main point is clear enough: There is a cohort in America that longs for the past, the one in which society was drawn along well-established color lines. We've seen these folks in social media videos, hurling epithets at cashiers and joggers. We've also seen them, in exaggerated form, in movies like Jordan Peele's horror-comedy "Get Out" and Boots Riley's social satire "Sorry to Bother You," in which white cabals actively strive to recreate or reimagine Black slavery. "Antebellum" tracks both movies closely. (It's part of a trend: In the upcoming film "Alice," a Black slave in Georgia escapes her captors and discovers the year is actually 1973. Bogglingly, "Alice" is inspired by several true stories.)

"Antebellum" starts out strong, with images of a sun-dappled plantation and its well-dressed inhabitants strolling the grounds. Gradually, we're shown the reality behind the gentility: Black men yoked and belled like oxen, women shot like horses. Think "Gone with the Wind," with a conscience. The majestic yet sinister score, by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur, completes the effect.

Into this horror drops a newcomer, Eden, played by an earnest Janelle Monae. She's beaten, then branded, then turned into a soldier's pleasure source. With the grounds patrolled by the mustachioed Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), escape seems futile. Those that tried ended up in the nearby incinerator.

Just as the film is establishing tension and hinting at a plot, "Antebellum" moves without explanation to the present day. Suddenly, we're following the posh but humdrum life of Veronica (also Monae), a successful author and cable-news pundit. She does yoga, gives speeches and chats with friends over dinner. (Gabourey Sidibe plays her obnoxious pal , a self-help author whose abuse of waitstaff and men is sold to us as self-empowerment.) This abrubt shift from Southern Gothic horror to meandering yuppie drama is a fatal error. The long stretches of boredom and banality suck the life out the movie, and "Antebellum" never recovers.

From there, "Antebellum" limps toward its ending and tries to sew up its confusing story with the neatest bow it can manage. It doesn't work. That's too bad, because "Antebellum" had the potential to say something important about both the past and the present.

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