Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
USA, 2020. Lionsgate, QC Entertainment. Screenplay by Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz. Cinematography by Pedro Luque. Produced by Gerard Bush, Zev Foreman, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Christopher Renz, Lezlie Wills. Music by Roman GianArthur Irvin, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder. Production Design by Jeremy Woodward. Costume Design by Mary Zophres. Film Editing by John Axelrad.
On a southern plantation in pre-Civil War America, Janelle Monáe lives in degradation as a slave, recently brought back after an escape attempt that sees her punished brutally for her efforts. She does not give up on the possibility of trying again, looking to formulate a better plan for her next escape attempt while warning those around her to lay low until they get away.
Falling asleep, she wakes up with a shock in modern-day Atlanta, now a successful author with a husband and daughter who is preparing to give a speech at a conference. Her work is geared at inspiring other black women to find their place in a society and economy that has not traditionally allowed them to thrive, but she’s also getting attention from a mysterious, vampish white woman (Jena Malone) who is anxious to meet her.
How these two narratives and time periods tie together will eventually become clear to you and reveal a horrifying truth about the persistence of racism in America, and quite frankly, the secret gimmick that is at the heart of this story is the film’s only reasonably credible element. Without giving too much away, I fully believe that what is proposed here could very well be happening, but directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are too concerned with their theme and with executing it in the most visually exciting manner to give their conceit much working logic or their characters much life.
The present-day half of the tale is sunk by bad dialogue and awkward performances, Monae is charismatic and exciting but her speeches seem like vague boiler-plate copy from any self-help book, while her scenes hanging with her girlfriends (one of them played by Gabourey Sidibe) are out of a bad commercial. The Civil War-era stuff is upsetting and thrilling but the eventual resolution is too easily achieved, the plot holes gaping long and large.
The theme of America’s refusal to escape its issues with racism feel more exploited than uncovered by what eventually feels like a very distasteful plot, for while the bad guys are treating inhumanity like an amusement park ride, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy coming from a film that is itself doing the same thing.