Antebellum, a horror movie from first-time film directors Gerard Bush and Christoper Renz, addresses the lasting impact of slavery in the United States while creating a visually striking world and mysterious storyline. Released during a moment of reckoning in the United States, the movie, which is available to rent on multiple streaming platforms, joins the multitude of voices asking Americans to face our country’s dark past of racial injustice.
Janelle Monáe stars as Veronica Henley, a successful author and activist who is promoting her recent book about the intersectionality of race and gender when she is suddenly transported to a terrifying world. She finds herself trapped on a plantation under the control of a tyrannical general (Eric Lange) and surrounded by confederate soldiers, with the sounds of the Civil War raging in the background. The film switches between Veronica’s two realities and leaves the audience to speculate how exactly she arrived on the plantation. In her life as a wealthy and well-known author, she laughs and dances with her family and friends while also speaking publicly about racial inequities and injustices. On the plantation, she works with another slave, Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) to plan their escape. Reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s horror films Get Out and Us, Antebellum uses the suspense genre to show the horrors that Black people face in the United States. The movie strikingly compares the injustice and cruelty Veronica experiences trapped on a plantation with the racism and microaggressions she faces staying in a high-end hotel while speaking about her book at a convention.
Monáe carries the film as she flawlessly shifts from playing a self-assured successful author and activist to a slave enduring the physical pain of labor and the agony of a life without freedom. Numerous close-up shots during scenes on the plantation allow the audience to see the fear and desperation of the slaves. One striking scene begins by focusing on a stoic Veronica, and then pans out to show another slave, Julia (Kiersey Clemons), by her side, begging for her to help them escape. Veronica stares blankly past her as she wrestles with the risk of attempting to run away and her desire for liberation. Bush and Renz skillfully use the film’s set to depict how the slaves are truly trapped. The camera often frames Veronica surrounded by the walls of her creaky wood cabin, fearfully waiting for the general to come visit her.
Antebellum’s cultural relevance and the eerie connections it draws between modern and antebellum America mask its lackluster writing and occasional plot holes. Some of the dialogue between Veronica and her family depends on cliché, but it is punctuated with passionate statements about racism in the United States. The film also indecisively introduces elements of supernatural horror, which misleadingly suggest that the plot is much more complicated than it turns out to be. Antebellum is not a horror movie that has jump-scares or multiple shocking twists. The real horror lies in the heartrending abuse the characters endure on the plantation, and the fact that slavery is a historical reality, the impact of which is still felt today. At one point, the film alludes to the ubiquitous and hidden racism in the United States when a Confederate general tells Veronica, “We’re nowhere and everywhere.”
Featured image courtesy of QC Entertainment