Editor’s note: This film review is not in our usual format and contains spoilers for Lionsgate’s Antebellum. Given the weight of the story, our reviewer found that including certain plot details was critical to the review and discussion of the film’s impact.
Antebellum, the psychological horror-thriller, is the feature directorial debut from visionary filmmakers, writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Well-known for their advertising work involved in the fight for social justice, the duo partners with QC Entertainment, producer of the Academy Award-winning films Get Out and BlackkKlansman, Zev Foreman, Lezlie Willis. The film also stars musical artist and actress Janelle Monáe,Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, and Gabourey Sidibe.
Antebellum centers on a modern-day Black woman, Veronica Henley, played by Monáe, who must escape from a Southern slave plantation. Veronica is a successful and prominent author who gets abducted and seemingly transported to the antebellum period. There she is enslaved at a 19th-century “reformer plantation.” Where disobedience of any form includes talking back, speaking without permission, and or failing to respond when prompted is punishable by beatings or death. Now she must free herself and others before it is too late.
The film opens with some stunning cinematography. Antebellum captures the romanticized image of life on a Southern plantation, as a young white girl wearing yellow dress skips across the plantation’s estate. The sudden and threatening change in the score alerts the audience that something darker is taking place on this cotton plantation. The camera then shifts its focus from the idyllic image of Southern plantation life that ignores the atrocities to focus on the enslaved Black people on the plantation. Behind the big plantation house as a Confederate officer and property is overseer Capt. Jasper (Jack Huston), and we’re introduced to him as he threatens a stop an enslaved couple from making their escape. This opening scene is a prime example of how Antebellum challenges the perverse romanticization that ignores the atrocities of the American South’s past against enslaved Africans and their descendants.
The entire cast of Antebellum gives an amazing performance but the ones that stood out most of all to me were from Kiersey Clemons, Tongayi Chirisa, Janelle Monáe. I especially enjoyed the dialogue and scenes that they shared with one another. While speaking amongst one another is forbidden on the plantation, it is the subtle looks and expressions they use to communicate. Additionally, Monáe makes one hell of a leading lady in this film. She delivers dynamic performance that humanizes her character. She showcases her character’s resourcefulness, intelligence, strength, and vulnerability in every scene.
Additionally, I must applaud Clemons’s brief, but powerful performance that really resonated with me and touched on the negligence with which pregnant Black woman are treated. Clemon’s plays Shoshanna Meadows, a pregnant Black Woman that arrives at the plantation briefly after Veronica. Shoshanna tells Veronica that she is pregnant and is desperate to escape from by any means. Through cruel and unfortunate circumstances Shoshanna miscarries her baby and breaks down in the middle of the cotton field. All the while the overseer looks on and demands that she silences herself and goes and cleans up. Ignoring that she is in pain, barely able to walk, and could die at that very moment. Had it not been for Veronica stepping in, Shoshanna would have died then and there.
Clemons’ character and this scene is another way the film makes a powerful statement on a relevant and devastating problem for Black women in healthcare. Research has proven that Black women experience a higher mortality rate after giving birth and higher rates of pregnancy loss than white women. These direct results of discrimination in healthcare. There are many healthcare professionals that still perceive Black patients feel less pain than white patients and are therefore more were more likely to suggest inappropriate medical treatment or ignore life-threatening medical concerns. This ignorant misconception of Black people having a higher pain tolerance is rooted in racism and beliefs that has its core in slavery.
I found Antebellum’s premise to be very reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred. Kindred incorporates time travel and slave narratives. The book is told from a first-person account of a young Black woman writer, Dana, who is stuck in time between 1976 Los Angeles, California, and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Since Kindred is one of my favorite books, I was thrilled to see if this film might pay homage to Butler’s work, which it does, but with one huge difference. Unlike Kindred, there is no supernatural or science-fiction at work in Antebellum. Midway through the film, it is revealed that something much more sinister is at play. The reveal left me utterly stunned. Which I imagine was the filmmakers’ intentions all along. This was a genius move narratively by the filmmakers because it flips the story upside down in my opinion.
For the first half of the film, audiences might think that they are watching a period piece that is a social commentary about slavery that ties to the modern-day oppression of Black people. Then it shifts. Instead, it leaves audiences shocked to find that instead of time travel, what is keeping Veronica captive on this picturesque antebellum-period plantation are White Supremacist Civil War re-enactors have decided to take their game to a more sickening and perverse level. Enslaving Black people whom they decided needed to know their place.
Additionally, the reveal that the slavery plantation exists in the modern-day makes this film phenomenal and earns its place as in the psychological horror-thriller genre. From the start of the film, the audience knows the stakes are high for Veronica and her comrades. However, that is because the audience assumes that she has been transported to one of America’s most cruel and horrific eras for a Black person. The film is full of suspense from start to finish because one misstep could mean death.
However, as the mysteries of Antebellum come to light and the audience learns that they are still in the present day. The fact that a slavery plantation is operating in the modern world by White Supremacists who are obsessed with the power dynamics of the Civil War Era is what makes the plot of Antebellum so much more twisted and sinister. Additionally, as a Black Woman, I can honestly imagine and believe that something like this could happen in our world today. That is the message that the filmmakers are telling with Antebellum.
There are racists and white supremacists alike that exist in this day and age that yearn for the days of old where they reigned supreme. They believe they are in charge and have control over our bodies. They still believe and view us as animals who are less than subhumans. That sick and demented idealogy still lives in the hearts and minds of many people who would leap at the opportunity to go and live out their fantasies as slave owners.
I love that this film unabashedly calls out white supremacy and addresses the roots of systematic racism. The very systematic racism that many people benefit from today all the while willfully ignoring or denying the generational damage it has caused to descendants of enslaved Black people. While also calling out the romanticization and delusions of grandeur that many White Americans have about the American South’s history especially when it comes to the perverse and obsessive way relics from the Civil War Era, like the Confederate Flag and statues that are still celebrated today. In the final act of the film, the film shows how these relics play a role in would-be slaveowners’ demise.
Veronica is able to take her revenge on her captors with the very devices used to torture the enslaved Blacks on the plantation. I even found it ironic how some begged her for mercy, the same mercy that they denied to those they had enslaved. There was no hesitation in her actions in taking her revenge against her captors either and in the end, it was poetic justice.
To be frank, while I have been excited about this film since it was first announced my biggest concern about Antebellum was the use of a slave narrative to tell another story centered on violence, especially one in the horror-thriller genre. Why? The ease with which the filmmakers could use a slave narrative for shock value stayed at the front of my mind, because of the long history of Hollywood doing exactly this and being awarded for it.
Over the last few years, my exhaustion with slave narrative films has grown. These films about slavery are often nothing more than trauma porn that showcases the brutalities of slavery and inserts a white savior in order for general audiences (read: white audiences) to feel alleviated from their white guilt to acknowledge the disgusting reality that was American slavery finally. That’s not to say that stories about enslaved people shouldn’t be told, nor should they be watered down. However, it is evident when slave narratives are made to appease or resonate with non-Black viewers, and therefore using our pain to entertain people who are not us.
Thankfully, that isn’t exactly the case with Antebellum. While it doesn’t shy away from the realities of slavery, it also doesn’t exploit them for shock value either. It is done to highlight the atrocities of enslavement. Now, there are some scenes that I had a difficult time watching, however, I will say they are necessary but thankfully they are brief as the camera does not linger there for too long. To me, it is clear that the primary audience for this film is Black people, with the heroine being a Black Woman. I sincerely appreciate that the film doesn’t cater to the audience by inserting a white savior to help save the day and instead gives Veronica agency while never allowing redemption for the racist antagonists. It is important for all audiences to see that Veronica’s escape to freedom did not come from the assistance of a kind white character that took pity on her situation. She comes out of this horrific experience heroic and victorious because of her resourcefulness and the help of her fellow enslaved Black comrades. She is able to make it to freedom and in turn free them as well based on her own strength.
Overall, Antebellum subverts the delusional and romanticized view of the American South while not abusing the slave narrative for shock value. Most of all it is refreshing and important to know that there are no white saviors in this film. The film is true to its genre as a psychological horror-thriller while being an intentional social commentary every step of the way. I can not recommend this film enough from the cinematography and storytelling to the amazing acting performances. Antebellum tells a vital and relevant message that doesn’t hold punches as it calls out white supremacy and the systemic racism that is embedded in America’s DNA even in the modern-day.
Antebellum is available on Apple TV+ Friday, September 18.
Antebellum subverts the delusional and romanticized view of the American South while not abusing the slave narrative for shock value. Most of all it is refreshing and important to know that there are no white saviors in this film…I can not recommend this film enough from the cinematography and storytelling to the amazing acting performances. Antebellum tells a vital and relevant message that doesn’t hold punches as it calls out white supremacy and the systemic racism that is embedded in America’s DNA even in the modern-day.