I did not see the advertising for Antebellum before seeing the movie itself. Therefore, I was caught completely off-guard by the central premise, which, I was stunned to learn later, is almost thoroughly revealed in the trailer. My recommendation is that you go into this picture as cold as possible, so I'm going to reveal less in this review than the ads do. Will knowing the concept ahead of time preclude enjoyment? No, because there's plenty of substance to dig into. However, the less you know in advance, the more filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz can work their magic.
Technically, Antebellum is a horror movie, just not the kind that offers traditional jump scares. The horror comes from the themes explored in the plot. Two women are at the center. Janelle Monae is Eden, a slave on a plantation during a time period that appears to be right before the start of the Civil War. She's forced to pick cotton and sexually gratify her “master.” Monae also plays Veronica Henley, a successful writer who makes TV and public speaking appearances to talk about being a Black woman in the 21st century. Eden and Veronica have a connection between them.
I won't tell you what the connection is. What can safely be said is that Antebellum is about how things have and have not changed in America for Black women. Eden faces the physically brutal realities of slavery, from working in the hot sun all day long to the threat of a whipping for displeasing whites. Veronica, on the other hand, faces stereotyping and being on the receiving end of microaggressions. When she appears on a television news program, for example, the white host treats her with condescension so thick that even her young daughter notices it. Other people she encounters seem resentful that a Black woman is successful, or they dislike the fact that she speaks openly about race. The point seems to be that racism has never gone away, it just evolves based on what can be gotten away with during any given time period.
Another, bigger idea runs underneath Antebellum. In the last few years, we've seen the rise of white supremacy in the United States. What happens if it continue to grow? The film doesn't address that subject directly, although it certainly – and intentionally -- spurs you to wonder what would happen if the most racist people in this country had their way. In other words, Antebellum infers that we might be in danger of going backwards, toward a time we thought was long behind us. That is the true horror in the picture.
Janelle Monea is superb, following up her work in Hidden Figures with another turn showing she's just as talented an actress as she is a singer. We feel the full force of the terror Eden and Veronica go through, thanks to her nuanced performance. Standout support comes from Kiersey Clemons as a pregnant slave Eden tries to help and Gabourey Sidibe as Veronica's randy friend. Jena Malone is additionally fine as the mistress of the plantation.
Bush and Renz work with cinematographer Pedro Luque to give Antebellum a stylish look in both sections. Scenes on the plantation have a spooky feeling of expanse, making it obvious that Eden's thoughts of escape from the remote location are possibly unrealistic. Veronica's world, in contrast, is sleek and modern, with racism perpetually lurking in out-of-the way corners. Often times, the directors choose shots that crank up the tension with the manner in which they're composed.
Antebellum's big finale is filled with grand symbolism that not everyone will find appealing. I was okay with the exaggerated nature of it, though, because that symbolism ties together the ideas inherent in the story, and, through its implications, simultaneously points to chilling possibilities of where America could be headed if we don't get racism under control quickly.
This may be the most intelligent and provocative horror film of the year.
out of four
Antebellum is rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.