“The past is never dead. It’s never even past.”
This is the William Faulkner quote that opens Antebellum, the joint directorial effort from Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and it also serves as foreshadowing for this story. The film opens up with the camera sweeping across a lush, serene plantation in a scene harkening back to Gone With the Wind, but something is a little off — it has a surreal feel to it. Then we are jolted to a traumatic scene filled with Confederate flags and soldiers right down the lane in which slaves are trying to escape when their efforts are thwarted. What is seen is brutal and overly dramatic. This is not to downplay the actual brutality of slavery and our history with it, for that was brutal. All of this plays out over a dramatic score heightening the melodrama.
But is this opening overkill? The brutality lasts for about 15 minutes straight. It has a veneer that is not as gritty as it may seem — there is a sheen of modernity to it. As the film progresses, we hear confederate soldiers talk of “confederate victory,” and it makes one think, for a fleeting second, maybe this is alternative history. The characters and dialogue make one feel Antebellum is more akin to Django Unchained than it is to say, Roots or the like.
We are introduced to Eden, a young slave woman played with such intensity by Janelle Monáe. She’s having her “Kunta Kente in Roots” moment with her Confederate master. Like many scenes, they linger just a little too long to overemphasize the horrors of what happened to many slaves, women in particular.
And then, with the ring of a cell phone, we a jolted back to the present where we are introduced to Veronica Henley, an author and activist, also played by Monáe. Her character is outspoken, confident, and self-assured. She’s also struggling with the myth that women, black women, in particular, have to be “superwomen” who can do it all — be an amazing mother and a great wife while having a professional career and do it all with a smile and no complaints.
While in the present, we are also introduced to Elizabeth (played by Jena Malone), an over-the-top Southern belle. She comes at Veronica with lots of micro-aggressions that many people of color deal with on a daily basis. But her character and her overly-done Southern drawl just seem weird. We are given the impression that something just isn’t right with her. The two ladies’ lives, past and present, intertwine with costly results when history and the modern world collide.
Billed as a horror-thriller, Antebellum doesn’t have your typical horror tropes — your monsters and ghosts — per se, but it is filled with horrible people and the unfathomable depravity of the slave masters and that mindset. So it is horror for black people — anytime we have confronted America’s dark past (and disheartening present), it is horrific for us. The generational trauma and the lingering effects of slavery are always present — the past is not past. Like one of Veronica’s friends says in the film, “the unresolved past can wreak havoc on the present.”
Until America really contends with his “original sin,” we as a country won’t be able to reconcile and move forward as one. That could’ve been the message of this film, but it’s really about how a segment of white America is still trying to cling to that past — to “make America great again” — and put Black people “back in their place.” It is definitely a movie of its time and for this moment.
However, Antebellum falls just short. It feels like too many different things at once. There’s the Django Unchained-like absurdity and over-the-top-ness of the characters, the brutality and “morality play” feel like Roots and the modern thriller, plot twist of Get Out or an M. Night Shyamalan movie (there’s even a scene reminiscent of The Shining). The viewer doesn’t know if this movie is taking itself so serious that it comes off as something much less — predictable, boring, and melodramatic. There is beautiful cinematography and strong performances (Monáe, Eric Lange, Jack Huston, and Gabourey Sidibe — by far the most intriguing character), but they are not enough to save it.