Antebellum was supposed to be another big breakthrough for Janelle Monáe. That might seem like an absurd concept for an entertainer who has already put out multiple records, starred in multiple Best Picture nominees, and received of her own nominations for a multitude of awards in various fields. Surely, someone will offer decent odds on her EGOTing sometime in the next four decades. But right now, her film career is still relatively young, and Antebellum represents her first unambiguous starring role. It’s the kind of next step that can only be taken after massive previous successes; last spring, starring in a new socially-conscious horror movie from producers who worked on Get Out and Us seemed like another level up for a rare talent.
As with so many plans, a worldwide pandemic waylaid Monáe’s first leading-lady film. (She previously starred in the second season of Homecoming on TV.) Originally set to debut in April, Antebellum was bumped into August, then scheduled for a VOD-only release in September. Though trailers piqued a lot of curiosity, early reviews have not been kind; some critics have designated it one of the year’s worst, and they’re not wrong. A seemingly provocative dual narrative—one featuring Monáe as Veronica, a successful author in contemporary America, the other where she endures grotesque cruelty as Eden, a slave in the South—turns out to be a pretty facile, even exploitative gimmick story that employs real-life horrors for no greater purpose than to point out that they are, in fact, horrifying. Aiming to blow minds a second time, the movie further points out that racism still exists today. Turns out those Get Out comparisons were extremely unwise.
Notably, there aren’t many reviews that blame Monáe for the film’s shortcomings as a thriller, which makes sense; Antebellum fails on the writing and directing levels before any of its cast has a real chance to salvage it. Live by a hooky concept, die by a hooky concept. At the same time, it’s hard to walk away from this mess thinking that Monáe is a major movie star in waiting. If she’s giving it her best shot, it hasn’t resulted in a compelling performance that powers through bad material. She goes down with the ship. As Eden, she spends a lot of screen time reacting: to the horrors around her, to the unwinnable situation she’s found herself in, and to horrible violence perpetuated against other Black people. That’s the case for her work as Veronica, too. She reacts to microaggressions from white folks, vaguely unsettling hints that something is about to go wrong, and to the more outspoken demeanor of her friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe)—giving us scenes where Monáe is reacting to other reactions.
Plenty of great performances are largely reactive, but Monáe doesn’t convey much below the surfaces of those reactions. Most of her acting is strictly first-level; no shadings, no hidden contradictions, nothing unexpected. This can be attributed to how thinly conceived the material is. What she fails to do, really, is transcend that material. It’s both completely understandable and, put together with similarly by-the-book work in movies like Hidden Figures or Harriet, a sign that she may not be on the level of a major star. At very least, she can’t simply appear in boilerplate historical or quasi-historical narratives and enliven clichés with her very presence.
Granted, many screen performers improve with time, and based on Monáe’s boundless on-stage charisma and performer’s instincts, it seems entirely possible that her best screen acting still lies ahead of her. Pop stars who moonlight as actors have to hone their craft in fits and starts, in between other projects, and many improve substantially: Mariah Carey famously bombed out with Glitter, and then some years later gave a wonderfully grounded, live-in, unfussy performance in Precious. Monáe is starting from a much better place; her first non-voiceover film performance was in Moonlight, where she played Teresa, romantic partner to Juan (Mahershala Ali) and surrogate mother to the film’s young lead character, who Juan takes under his wing. It’s still her best movie work, unvarnished and true (like pretty much all of the performances in Moonlight).
In bigger roles, though, Monáe seems caught between the outsized personality of her music and the restraint of clunky drama. She’ll display shimmers of her musician persona, as when she plays a self-confident boarding-house owner in Harriet, without overwhelming the proceedings. It’s more explicit in Antebellum, where part of the movie sees her stuck in slave-movie suffering, while the other has her luxuriating in her ill-defined awesomeness as a bestselling author. Here’s the weird thing: Monáe is clearly smart, thoughtful, and very famous. Yet as Veronica, she’s vaguely unconvincing playing these same qualities. When she cuts loose in the movie’s final section, her rage almost feels aestheticized, like she’s flipped into music-video mode. It’s a worst-of-both-worlds situation, because the idiosyncrasy of her performances on albums like Dirty Computer is nowhere to be found. Her work is numbingly respectable.
The instinct to tamp down a bit does make sense. The kind of showmanship she displays in music videos and on stage can be off-putting in more conventional, longer-form narratives, and Monáe obviously doesn’t want to just make pop-star vehicles. What she doesn’t seem to have figured out is what to do in their place. At the moment, she specializes in the kind of uninspired, mark-hitting performances that Anne Hathaway used to deliver regularly, before she started getting messier and less quasi-likable. Again, there are countless factors outside of Monáe’s abilities: The fact that so many roles for Black women have to do with historical narratives of inequality, for one, or the paucity of original Hollywood musicals for another. It’s hard to begrudge her attempts, not least because of the built-in affinity of recognition: Hey, it’s the woman who made Dirty Computer, the best album of 2018, in a movie!
This also brings to mind the irreverent, almost snotty running gag on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where characters and chyrons repeatedly asked whether Cate Blanchett was really a great actor, or “just tall.” It’s an absurd joke (hardly anyone would actually debate Blanchett’s talent), but one that’s rooted in a recognizable phenomenon: Some performers are so physically striking and distinctive that it’s almost difficult to actually look at their acting without falling in thrall of their presence. In other words: Is Janelle Monáe a good actor, or is she “just” a musical genius? Are the remnants of her musical presence being mistaken for interesting performances?
Of course, there’s not necessarily much difference between presence and “real” acting, especially in film, where ineffable charisma can play a huge role when assisted with close-ups and editing. Vin Diesel, to cite an extreme example, is not doing technically gobsmacking stuff in a lot of his movies. But he draws eyes to his characters and. in his inimitable way, makes them believable. That’s where Monáe falls short, and I’m as surprised as anyone to report it. She’s a rare and undeniable talent who made this website’s album of the year pretty recently. She might require a film vehicle that pushes further past the boundaries of normal horror pictures or historical epic—and one that pushes her further, too.