Greetings again from the darkness. This is the movie for anyone unaware that racism was prevalent during the Civil War, and still continues to this day. Of course anyone fitting that description is likely enjoying their life in a cave, and is clueless that movies exist. It even goes as far to “inform” us that slaves were abused, tortured, and lynched, while today racism can take the more subtle form of a less desirable restaurant table or a concierge with an attitude. However, while the message may be unnecessary and too obvious, the originality and creative approach of filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz is commendable, especially for their first feature film.
An uninterrupted extended take kicks off the movie, and shows us the lay of the land at a cotton plantation where the slaves are controlled by confederate soldiers. When an attempted escape goes wrong, the brutality of the soldiers is on display. One of the slaves is Eden, played by Janelle Monae. She’s the favorite of the General (Eric Lange, seen recently in two popular cable mini-series, “Escape at Dannemora” and “Perry Mason”), and he literally brands her as his property. Many of the sequences are difficult to watch as the cruelty and abuse is not sugar-coated.
When we next see Ms. Monae wake up from a dream, she’s living in a swanky home with a perfect husband (Marque Richardson) and cute daughter. She’s now Veronica, a well-known author and speaker who is living the American dream. A night on the town with her friends played by Gabourey Sidibe (Oscar nominated for PRECIOUS, 2009) and Lily Cowles purposefully comes across like it’s from a different movie altogether. It’s this contrast the filmmakers use to deliver their M Night Shyamalan style twist. Afterwards, it’s wheels-off for the movie, but we are able to assemble the pieces of what we’ve seen to this point.
Jena Malone and Jack Huston also play key roles here, but it’s Ms. Monae who gets the majority of the screen time, and mostly nails both Eden and Veronica. Although much of the film and story seems exaggerated and over-played, cinematographer Pedro Luque (THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, 2018) delivers a beautifully shot film, so it always looks good, regardless of what else we might be thinking. Filmmakers Bush and Renz likely have much more nuanced and effective storytelling in their future, and we do expect Ms. Monae to take the step from supporting roles to leads. She’s earned it.