I was somewhat leery when the synopsis for Antebellum described the first-time writing/directing team Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz as “advocacy filmmakers…best known for their pioneering advertising work engaged in the fight for social justice.” In that context, I viewed the movie feeling fairly certain I was about to be spoon-fed a message that was likely going to be Very Important. The only part of that prediction I was wrong about was the spoon feeding; it was more like a force-feeding.
The film begins with an impressive, slow-motion tracking shot through what appears to be a southern cotton plantation, populated mostly by slaves doing the picking and those in charge moving around the property on horseback. It’s a disturbingly serene sequence, interrupted by the murder of a slave who attempts to run away—a murder that makes no sense. Slaves were a valuable commodity and to kill one was a huge financial loss, no matter how rich the household might have been that owned them. The woman in question would have been punished severely for attempting to escape, but not killed. And it was my first (of many) signs that something was slightly off about what we are seeing.
The early part of the film is especially brutal and unpleasant with one of the plantation’s overseers, Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), running roughshod over everything under his watch, including a slave named Eden (Janelle Monáe), who seems to look after the head of the plantation—known only in the credits as Him (Eric Lange)—who also forces himself on Eden seemingly every night. On this particular night, she apparently has a hand in this escape attempt and after making her repeat her name to him, “Him” brands her with the plantation’s mark. I’m guessing for many it will be that moment where they either endure the repeated abuse against the Black characters or they bail on the movie entirely. Either decision makes some degree of sense.
We’re introduced to a new slave named Julia (Kiersey Clemons), who connects with Eden and immediately identifies her as the person who can help get her out of this situation. It’s apparent that Julia hasn’t been a slave for long because she’s asking too many questions and seems too eager to be defiant; her spirit hasn’t been broken yet, and that makes us fear for her journey all the more.
In the midst of Eden’s pain, the film switches tone and settings quite dramatically, and it’s revealed that Eden is actually Veronica Henley, a well-regarded and successful author who is a frequent talkshow guest and guest lecturer on the subject of equality and justice. She’s married and has a young daughter, and is heading to New Orleans to speak at a conference. Antebellum cleverly doesn’t show all of its cards too soon and let us know the connection between Eden and Veronica. Is one a descendant of the other? Is there a time travel thing going on? Is Veronica having nightmares about a real or fictional person based on her research and knowledge of the subject of slavery? It’s intentionally unclear, and as her trip moves along, we wait for the connective tissue between the two women to be made clear.
One of the only clues we get is the character of Elizabeth (Jena Malone, dripping with cartoonish evil intent), who communicates with Veronica via a tele-conference call and is quite clearly talking down to her. Veronica is taken aback when she first sees this woman because she looks remarkably similar to someone from the slavery sequence, who is the female head of the plantation who seems as overtly evil as any of the male characters. In New Orleans, Veronica gets to hang out with a couple of old girlfriends (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles), but their female-centric adventures on the town are rendered largely meaningless by the film as it continues.
When the true nature of Antebellum is finally revealed (and I won’t ruin it for anyone), it might be shocking to some, but it made me question the purpose of the entire exercise. While I certainly believe that the horrors of slavery should never be forgotten or soft pedaled, the way the movie handles it feels exploitative in its excess. Some of the biggest issues I have with the story here can’t be discussed in detail without ruining the twists of the plot, but the film seems to alternate between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Its messages of the timeless, ongoing problems of racism in America are obvious and not delivered in a way that makes them land in any way I’m guessing the filmmakers want them to. As a result, Antebellum feels neutered, anticlimactic, and frequently dull, even if the final act comes as a shock to some.
The film is now available via premium On-Demand platforms.