If Antebellum feels at first like a sadistically generic slavery drama, one that ironically undermines the seriousness of the subject at hand, the movie has a good reason for it. But it’s a reason I can’t give away.
Part period piece, part horror flick, part Shyamalanesque piece of chicanery, Antebellum—if you stick with it—reveals itself to be a sharp consideration of the lasting legacy of American slavery, right down to the present day. And so an opening scene of two Confederate soldiers in uniform violently subduing an enslaved man in a field offers a visual echo of the regular videos of uniformed police officers acting similarly today. The movie is exactly about how things have and have not changed.
Janelle Monáe stars as Eden, an enslaved woman living on a Civil War-era plantation run by Confederate soldiers. After she endures a series of atrocities—filmed by the writing-directing team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz with the aforementioned tinge of uninspired exploitation—Eden finally lies down in her cabin and closes her eyes. When she opens them, she is no longer Eden but Veronica Henley—a 2020 wife, mother, and prominent speaker and author on race in America. Was “Eden” a dream? Is “Veronica” a vision of Eden’s? Or is something else going on? Clues are dropped here and there (a few fairly clever ones, in retrospect), but the movie had me fooled until its climactic reveal.
Until then, your mileage may vary. There are certainly more scenes of subjugation than are necessary. As a haunting consideration of history, this is hardly Toni Morrison’s Beloved (or Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation, for that matter). But Monáe—in both time frames—has a gravity that carries you through the queries, as well as a startling ferocity in the movie’s vengeful finale. There are some gonzo moments there—including another timely reference involving a Robert E. Lee monument—that give Antebellum the righteous anger of a blaxploitation flick. In its own cheeky way, the movie has something incisive to say not only about how we regard history, but also about the ways we perpetuate it.