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Antebellum Review: Janelle Monáe Shines in Provocative Film on the Horror of Slavery

The horror film will be released on-demand Sept. 18

Liam Mathews

Antebellum is the latest in a growing post-Get Out wave of horror movies and shows, including The First Purge and Lovecraft Countrythat are explicitly about racism. These works don't cloak what they're about in metaphor. They use fear of being terrorized or killed by white racists as thematic and narrative fuel. They're effective in making the fear feel real, because it is real. 

Antebellum, which releases Sept. 18 via video on demand, another theater-skipping casualty of the pandemic, is the debut feature from writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who have directed commercials and music videos as well as social justice-oriented shorts like Against the Wall, a powerful anti-police brutality PSA produced by Harry Belafonte. One of its producers is Sean McKittrick, who produced Get Out. And it stars Janelle Monáe, a multitalented performer whose choices always reflect her activist ideals. This is a project with social justice advocacy in its DNA.

Monáe plays Veronica Henley, an author and academic with a beautiful home and family whose book, which she describes as "a road map to revolution for historically marginalized people," gets her booked on cable TV and at TED Talk-style conferences. She's an embodiment of Black progress, someone who is not only prosperous but listened to and respected for what she does to help uplift her community. But her outspokenness draws attention from people who really don't like what she has to say and wish to silence her. 

Monáe also plays Eden, an enslaved woman on a brutal plantation owned by a Confederate general (Eric Lange) and run by a sadistic overseer known as Captain Jasper (Jack Huston, in a shockingly evil performance) and his wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Eden has tried to escape in the past and is motivated to try again by the arrival of a new enslaved woman, Julia (Kiersey Clemons). 

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To give away too many plot details would spoil the film's twist, but viewers who are paying close attention to the language the Confederate soldiers use may be able to figure it out. The film uses the line "The past is never dead. It's not even past" -- a famous quote from Southern author William Faulkner -- as an epigraph and a motif throughout to link what's happening to Veronica and Eden. In a sense, Antebellum is a horror movie about generational trauma, where the pain suffered by the ancestors is still felt by the descendants. It's also a timely and disturbing commentary on racist right-wing violence in present-day America. The writers only have to exaggerate a little bit to make their point, which is the scariest part of the whole movie. 

Antebellum depicts horrific acts of violence and torture in the context of slavery, including sexual violence, and it can be very difficult to watch. It's possible that some critics will call the film exploitative for using the imagery and history of chattel slavery in an entertaining horror-thriller context, but the film does not use these things lightly. It won't be accused of glamorizing or glorifying the antebellum era or the Confederacy. 

The film loses its way for a bit in the middle third as it gets taken over by Gabourey Sidibe as Veronica's annoying friend Dawn, a character who overpowers the scenes she's in and doesn't connect narratively to the larger story. It feels like there was supposed to be another scene with Dawn that pays off why she's in the movie, but it got cut from the final edit. I don't know if that's actually the case, but Dawn has a showcase scene that feels out of place and drags the movie to a halt for a few minutes. The middle third, which is set in the present day, feels perfunctory compared to the plantation scenes. 

All in all, though, Antebellum is an impressive debut from Bush and Renz, aided by exceptional contributions from director of photography Pedro Luque Briozzo, costume designer Mary Zophres, production designer Jeremy Woodward, and score composers Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur. The movie was filmed on location at a preserved plantation in Louisiana, which makes it even more real and disturbing. Antebellum will start provocative conversations and force viewers to think about America's enduring history of slavery and the people currently working in law enforcement or holding political office who wish it never ended. 

TV Guide Rating: 3/5

Antebellum will be released via video on demand Friday, Sept. 18 

Janelle Monáe, Antebellum

Janelle Monáe, Antebellum

Matt Kennedy