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ANTEBELLUM raises the question: Is Janelle Monáe a great actor, or just a musical genius?

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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.
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