Review: ‘Antebellum,’ starring Janelle Monáe

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Janelle Monáe in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

“Antebellum”

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the American South, the horror film “Antebellum” has a cast of African American and white people representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: The world of a successful, modern-day African American woman is somehow linked to a Southern plantation where she and other African Americans are mistreated and abused as slaves.

Culture Audience: “Antebellum” will appeal primarily to people who might think that a horror movie about the brutality of slavery would have some insightful social commentary, but the horrific abuse in the film is mostly exploitation.

Gabourey Sidibe, Janelle Monáe and Lily Cowles in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

You can almost hear the gimmick pitch that got “Antebellum” made into a movie: “Let’s make a horror film that’s like ’12 Years a Slave’ meets ‘Get Out.'” Unfortunately, “Antebellum” is nowhere near the quality or merit of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and “Get Out,” even though QC Entertainment (one of the production companies behind “Get Out”) is a production company for “Antebellum.”

The sad reality is that “Antebellum” just seems like an exploitative cash grab to attract Black Lives Matter supporters, but the movie is really a “bait and switch,” because there’s almost no social consciousness in the movie and nothing to be learned from the story. “Antebellum” is actually a very soulless and nonsensical horror flick that uses slavery as a way to just have repetitive scenes of African Americans being sadistically beaten, strangled and raped.

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who have a background in directing commercials, co-wrote and co-directed “Antebellum,” which is their feature-film debut. Normally, it’s not necessary to mention the race of a filmmaker when reviewing a movie. But because “Antebellum” is about the triggering and controversial topics of racism, slavery and the exploitation of African Americans, it should be noted that Bush is African American and Renz is white.

Just because an African American co-wrote and co-directed this movie doesn’t excuse the problematic way that racist violence against African Americans is depicted in the movie. “Antebellum” has this racist violence for violence’s sake, with little regard to making any of the slaves, except for the movie’s main character, have any real substance. It’s the equivalent of a mindless slasher film that doesn’t care about having a good plot or well-rounded characters but just takes perverse pleasure in seeing how the victims get attacked, tortured and possibly killed.

The movie doesn’t waste any time showing this cruel violence, since the opening scene is of a male slave named Eli (played by Tongayi Chirisa) being separated from his love partner/wife named Amara (played by Achok Majak) by a group of plantation supervisors in Confederate military uniforms. The group is led by the evil racist Captain Jasper (played by Jack Huston), who takes pleasure in torturing Amara, who is lassoed with a rope around the neck when she tries to run away in the cotton field. You can easily guess what happens next.

People who’ve seen any “Antebellum” trailers or clips might wonder why the movie’s protagonist (played by Janelle Monáe) seems to be in two different worlds: In one world, she’s a slave on a plantation during the Civil War era. In another world, she’s a present-day, happily married mother of a young daughter.

To explain why she exists in these two worlds would be a major spoiler for the movie. But it’s enough to say that the explanation comes about halfway through the film, and it creates questions that are never really answered by the end of the movie. “Antebellum” is supposed to take place in different unnamed cities in the South. The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.

In the plantation world, Monáe is a quietly defiant slave who is secretly planning to escape with some other slaves. She has been named Eden by the plantation’s sadistic owner who goes by the name “Him” (played by Eric Lange), who assaults her and burns her with a hot branding iron until she agrees that her name is Eden. Later, he rapes her. The real name of “Him” is revealed later in the movie.

We don’t see Eden do much plotting to escape in the movie, mainly because the slaves have been ordered not to talk to each other or else they will be punished. It’s implied that Eden is the self-appointed leader of this escape plan because another slave named Julia (played by Kiersey Clemons) arrives at the plantation and expects Eden to fill her in on the escape details.

Julia, who is pregnant, tells Eden that she heard that Eden is from Virginia. Julia says that she’s from North Carolina. Eden replies, “Wherever you came from before here, you need to forget North Carolina.” Julia says, “That’s not possible for me. What are we doing? What’s the plan?” Eden responds, “We must choose are own wisely. But until then, we must keep our heads down and our mouths shut.”

Later, when Julia becomes frustrated by what she thinks is Eden stalling or not doing anything to implement the escape plan, she angrily says to Eden: “You ain’t no leader. You’re just a talker.” And since Julia is pregnant, you can bet her pregnancy will be used as a reason to make any violence against her more heinous.

Meanwhile, Captain Jasper has an equally racist wife named Elizabeth (played by Jena Malone), who is as ice-cold as her husband is quick-tempered. It’s implied, but not said outright, that she knows he rapes the female slaves. In an early scene in the movie, Elizabeth recoils when Jasper leans in to kiss her. She sniffs, as if to smell him, and says with a slightly disgusted tone, “Hmm. You started early.”

Meanwhile, the modern-day character played by Monáe is a sociologist and best-selling author named Veronica Henley, whose specialty is in social justice issues related to race. And in this story, she’s promoting her book “Shedding the Coping Persona,” which is about marginalized people learning to be their authentic selves instead of pretending to be something they’re not to please their oppressors. Veronica is well-educated (she has a Ph. D. and is a graduate of Spelman College and Columbia University) and she’s happily married. She’s prominent enough to have debates on national TV about topics such as racism and African American empowerment.

Veronica and her husband Nick (played by Marque Richardson) have an adorable daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old named Kennedi (played by London Boyce), who’s very inquisitive and perceptive. After the family watches a debate-styled interview that Veronica did on TV with a conservative white male pundit (whose profession is listed “eugenics expert/professor”), Kennedi asks Veronica why the man was so angry. Veronica replies, “Sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear.”

Nick is the type of doting husband and father who will make breakfast for Veronica and Kennedi. Meanwhile, Veronica confides in her sassy single friend Dawn (played by Gabourey Sidibe) that she often feels guilty about being away from home when she has to work. Dawn reassures Veronica that she’s a great wife and mother and tells Veronica not to be too hard on herself. (Dawn, who is assertive and outspoken, has some of the best and funniest lines in the movie.)

Veronica has to go out of town to attend an African American-oriented conference called VETA, where she is a guest speaker. Dawn lives in the area, so they make plans to have dinner with Dawn’s friend Sarah (played by Lily Cowles), who is also single and available. Before Veronica meets up with them, she gets a bouquet of flowers delivered to her at her hotel. The flowers have a note that says, “Look forward to your homecoming.”

Veronica assumes that the gift is from Nick. But since this is a horror movie, viewers can easily figure out that Nick did not send those flowers. Some other strange things happen in the hotel room when Veronica isn’t there. And then, something happens after that dinner that explains how the plantation world and the modern world are connected.

Monáe does an adequate job in the role that she’s been given. And the movie’s cinematography, production design and costume design are actually very good. The actors who play the racists predictably portray them as caricatures of evil. The insidiousness of a lot of racists is that they hide their hate with fake smiles and polite mannerisms to the people they hate, but there’s no such subtlety in this story, since all of the villains are revealed early on in the story.

The biggest problem with “Antebellum” is the screenplay. The ending of the movie is absolutely ludicrous and it actually makes the African Americans in the story look dumb for not taking certain actions that could have been taken earlier. Therefore, “Antebellum” isn’t as uplifting to African Americans as it likes to think it is.

The tone of the movie is also uneven, because the slavery scenes are absolutely dark and brutal. But then the scenes with Sidibe and her sitcom-ish character are very out of place and dilute the intended horror of the movie. Sidibe is very good in the role, but the Dawn character was written as too comedic for this type of movie. And huge stretches of “Antebellum” are just plain boring, with no real suspense.

However, the main ridiculousness of “Antebellum” goes back to that plantation and the secret that’s revealed at the end of the movie. If people want to see the horrors of slavery depicted in an Oscar-worthy narrative film, then watch “12 Years a Slave.” Don’t watch “Antebellum,” which uses slavery as an exploitative gimmick as the basis for this moronic and not-very-scary horror movie.

Lionsgate released “Antebellum” on VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Come as You Are’ (2020), starring Grant Rosenmeyer, Hayden Szeto, Ravi Patel, Gabourey Sidibe, Janeane Garofalo and C.S. Lee

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise from left: Gabourey Sidibe, Hayden Szeto, Ravi Patel and Grant Rosenmeyer in “Come as You Are” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Come as You Are”

Directed by Richard Wong

Culture Representation: “Come as You Are” is a comedy about a racially diverse trio of middle-class disabled young men and their female driver who take a road trip from the U.S. to Canada, so the men can visit a brothel and lose their virginities.

Culture Clash: The men sometimes bicker amongst each other over how much they should tell people about their brothel plans, and they have overprotective parents who are against the trip.

Culture Audience: This movie will primarily appeal to viewers who like comedy films to strike a balance between raunchy humor and a story that has a lot of heart.

Ravi Patel, Hayden Szeto, Grant Rosenmeyer and Gabourey Sidibe in “Come as You Are” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

There have been plenty of comedies about road trips, but “Come as You Are” is truly a noteworthy gem not just because the main characters in the movie are disabled but also because it’s a genuinely funny ride that realistically portrays life’s ups and downs. Directed by Richard Wong and written by Erik Linthorst, the movie is a remake of the 2011 Belgian film “Come as You Are” which was originally titled “Hasta La Vista.” The movie is based on a true story, which is probably why even among some of the slapstick moments, most of the film’s emotional elements ring very true. The American filmmakers who did the “Come as You Are” remake consulted with American paraplegic Asta Philpot (who’s the inspiration for the movie), as well as the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab and the Wheelchair Athletes of McFetridge.

In the beginning of the film, viewers are introduced to the person who sets in motion the plans for the road trip. Scotty (played by Grant Rosenmeyer, who’s also one of the films producers) is a 24-year-old quadriplegic virgin who lives with his overbearing single mother Liz (played by Janeane Garofalo) in Littleton, Colorado. Liz is the only caretaker for Scotty, and she’s aware but in denial that her son has sexual needs that aren’t being met. Scotty cannot use his arms and legs due to a congenital defect. And he’s frequently horny and frustrated because he has no prospects for a girlfriend or even a “friend with benefits.” It doesn’t help that Scotty is often abrasive and rude with people.

Scotty channels his angst into original rap songs that he secretly writes but is afraid to perform in front of anyone. He also spends time at a physical-therapy center, where he has a somewhat tense acquaintance with Mo (played by Ravi Patel), a 35-year-old who’s legally blind. Mo lives with his parents, who are also overprotective, but his parents are never seen in the movie. Scotty has a mild crush on his physical therapist Becky (played by Daisye Tutor), who is aware of Scotty’s crush but keeps things professional between them.

One day, a newcomer arrives at the center. His name is Matt (played by Hayden Szeto), a paraplegic in his 20s who can use his hands. Becky is assigned to work with Matt, and Scotty gets very jealous. Later at the therapy center, while watching a paraplegic baseball game, Scotty picks a fight with Matt and demands that Matt tell him that Becky is Scotty’s therapist. Matt, who is polite and doesn’t want a confrontation, agrees to Scotty’s demand, and the expression on Matt’s face says that he wonders if Scotty is mentally unstable.

During the baseball game, Scotty notices that one of the paraplegic baseball players is a middle-aged man who has a gorgeous young girlfriend who could pass for a model. Scotty watches in awe and then congratulates the man on being able to get someone that attractive as a girlfriend. The man then gives Scotty a business card and tells him to look up the business because it will change his life. The card is for a place in Montreal called Chateau Paradis. (In the Belgian “Come as You Are” movie, the disabled men visit a brothel in Spain.)

When Scotty gets home, he looks up Chateau Paradis on the Internet and he finds out that it’s a brothel, founded by a paraplegic (played by Philpot, in a cameo), that caters to the disabled and other people with special needs. Scotty immediately wants to go to the brothel, but he has three big problems: He can’t drive, he can’t afford to go on the trip by himself, and his mother would never allow him to go on the trip.

Scotty immediately hatches a plan to recruit other men from the therapy center to go on the trip with him. He knows that Mo is a virgin, and he figures that mild-mannered Matt might be a virgin too. (He is.) Mo and Matt are each reluctant to go on the trip at first. In fact, Matt flat-out refuses when Scotty asks him for the first time, because Matt has a girlfriend.

But when Matt catches his college-aged girlfriend heavily flirting with another student in a school library, he gets very upset, and she breaks up with him because she says she has to think about her future. It’s a short but heartbreaking moment that shows the harsh realities that disabled people often face when they’re in romantic relationships with able-bodied people, because at some point in the relationship (depending on how serious it is), the issues of how, if or when to raise a family will have to be addressed.

After the breakup with his girlfriend, Matt goes all-in on the road trip and decides he wants to lose his virginity at the brothel. He’s so eager to go that he tells Scotty that he wants to take the trip the following week. Because Scotty has a prickly relationship with Mo, Scotty enlists Matt to convince Mo to take the trip. Mo agrees because he’s always wanted to travel out of the area, but he has mixed feelings about going to the brothel.

Matt lives with his overprotective parents—Roger (played by C.S. Lee) and Maryanne (played by Jennifer Jelsema)—and his pre-teen younger sister Jamie (played by Martha Kuwahara). Although they are a loving family, Matt is feeling stifled by his parents’ unwillingness to let him do more things as an independent adult. (Not surprisingly, his parents refuse Matt’s request to go on a road trip.) Matt also has an unnamed medical condition that requires him to frequently take prescription pills.

Knowing that their parents would disapprove, it doesn’t take long for Scotty, Mo and Matt to go on the secretive trip by temporarily “running away” from home and by hiring a van service that can attend to people with disabilities. In one hilarious scene before they go on their excursion, Matt sends his little sister Jamie to a drugstore to secretly buy him supplies for the trip, including condoms. The look on the cashier’s face is priceless.

To the trio’s surprise, they find out that their van driver Sam is a woman, so they agree not to tell her the real reason for the road trip because they’re afraid of offending her. At first, Sam (played by Gabourey Sidibe) is abrupt and emotionally distant, but she eventually warms up to Mo, who is the most intellectually nerdy one of the group. However, Scotty (like he does with many people he encounters) quickly gets on Sam’s nerves, especially when he calls her “sweetheart,” and they get into some verbal spats in the beginning of the trip. Matt (as he often does in the story) plays peacemaker, and then Sam and Scotty come to an uneasy truce.

When Scotty’s mother and Matt’s parents find out that they’ve deliberately gone missing, the parents join forces to find Scotty and Matt. The story then becomes not just a road trip but also a chase movie, as the trio is in a race against time to get to the brothel before the parents catch up to them. Along the way, including stops in Nebraska and Chicago, a series of mishaps occur that won’t be revealed in this review. But it’s enough to say that Scotty’s mother has access to his email, so she’s found out where the guys are staying through an email confirmation sent by the motel. It increases the possibility that the parents will find the guys before they can get to the brothel.

Meanwhile, as Sam spends more time with her motley crew of passengers, she opens up about her past. Sam used to be a nurse, but she lost her nursing license because she illegally injected her ex-husband with insulin when she caught him cheating on her. Sam and Mo have a growing attraction to one another, which is sparked when Mo is able to describe Sam’s goldfinch tattoo on her arm, just by feeling the tattoo.

Sam eventually finds out about the men’s plans to visit the brothel, and she tells them that she’s actually relieved, because she thought that their secretive plans were more sinister, such as a suicide pact or smuggling drugs. During this unusual road trip, the four travelers learn more about each other and face bigotry issues and emotional challenges, which help them bond together in ways that they didn’t expect.

The entire cast of the movie does a terrific job, because it’s not easy to do a comedy where the characters could have been turned into over-the-top caricatures but instead come across as genuine human beings with full personalities and inner depth. It’s the kind of well-written, well-directed movie where viewers will wonder about some of the main characters’ histories as well as what might happen to them after the story ends.

Do they make it to the brothel? Do the parents catch up to them? Will Sam and Mo get together? You’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens. But along the way, you’ll have a raucous and fun ride with some very touching moments that might make some people shed a few tears. “Come as You Are” is the type of adult comedy that we need more of in this world, because it speaks to authentic and sometimes uncomfortable truths about life, in a way that can still make you laugh, even in the darkest moments.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Come as You Are” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.