Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz burst onto the screen with their first feature film. By all accounts, you would never be able to tell this is a freshman effort. While no stranger to creating media both artful and creative, this duo has made a name for themselves by directing fashion and luxury advertisements as well as music videos for the likes of Jay-Z and Khalid. The jump to feature films seems logical having conquered the short form – this jump is absolutely jaw-dropping. Right from the hair-raising start, two things are immediately clear – the first is that this a horror film set in the antebellum south – and two, it will look absolutely stunning.
Starting with an 8-minute shot sweeping through a southern plantation, the green grass, the massive oak trees, and an unconscious slave woman being carried back from running away. The camera then focuses on two more runaway slaves, a man with a massive spiked collar and another woman who is begging for his life. The ruthless confederate soldier Jasper (Jack Huston) deals with them in horrific and brutal ways. Directors Bush and Renz make it clear that no punches will be pulled. The horrors of the past are not going to cut away at the last minute.
The main story focuses on Eden (Janelle Monáe) – Monáe is infinitely watchable and the absolute rock of this film—a slave living on the plantation who is looked up to by everyone else. She keeps her head down as much as she can and encourages newly arriving slaves to do the same. One particular new arrival (Kiersey Clemons) seems to almost recognize Eden and pleads with her to aid in her escape. Eden declines, but the wheels begin to set in motion and her hand may be forced soon enough to plan another escape.
The audience is also made privy to a modern-day story, where Monáe goes by the name Veronica and is a successful author, women’s, and civil rights activist. The dichotomy between the two storylines is jarring and feels a little off, the time spent with Eden on the plantation is certainly the stronger story, both in writing and concept. Understandably in today’s current political and social climate, there will be those who view this film as a “film of the time”, but that would be a disservice to the film and the many voices that are speaking. The issues at hand are not new and regardless of any current affairs, these issues need to be addressed and continue to be our conversation. Yes, slavery was brutal and inhumane – there are groups of people who have too much distance from those atrocities and the present-day story really drives home the ruthlessness and horror. This is not for the faint of heart, you will witness many unpleasant images, but it is necessary. When Eden is being beaten and raped there is a confederate flag flying high – when she is running for her life she trips over a statue of Robert E. Lee – these things have meaning, these things have a past. No matter how much distance there is between us in the annals of history those symbols are nearly impossible to disassociate and the film does a dang good job showing you why.
Again, the directors are not trying to cash in on buzzwords and news stories, there is a legitimate horror film unfolding amongst the backdrop of the American south. As such there are hair raising scenes of suspense, gore, and a final boss fight. The present-day scenes are not a distraction, but an absolutely necessary plot device. I would tell you why, but that would spoil all the fun.
The supporting cast of Eric Lange, Jena Malone – playing a wickedly evil plantation owner with reckless abandon – and a fun drop in from Gabourey Sidibe are all great and Monáe is the glue that brings them all together. This is a great showcase not just for Monáe, but for Bush and Renz as well.
Overall the films bright spots far outweigh the negative. The two stories are blended together nicely – and if you can remember that you are also watching a horror movie – this is a real treat from start to finish.
3.5 out of 5