Antebellum is more than a movie, it is an experience.
In a world where George Floyd’s death has sparked a social movement that addresses the nation’s long and brutal racial history, the Lost Cause has gained renewed currency as activists wrestle with statues and flags that testify to the bitter struggle over national identity.
The cultural clash over the Confederacy is taking place as we redefine the racial landscape and argue about what makes us uniquely American. Beyond that, the prominence of the New York Times’ 1619 Project forces us to turn once again to America’s original sin.
Slavery still ignites heated debates about how the past affects the present, and how bitter disagreement over enslaved Black people led kinfolk to take up arms against one another on bloody battlefields in the Civil War. That “Late Unpleasantness,” as southern historians took to calling the Civil War, has so deeply stained the American consciousness that thousands of folks each year participate in reenactments of its most notable conflicts.
White Southerners who lost the war but won the battle to interpret the war’s meaning can’t seem to let go of that war, or the Confederacy, or the idea of slavery that backed it all. But what if they didn’t have to surrender slavery? What if they could find a way to get us back to the old days where Black folk were shackled and had to obey the ruthless will of white overseers and owners? That sounds like a horror film; which is what Antebellum is – a brilliant, disturbing piece of visual magic and historical imagination wrapped inside of a highly-charged thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats precisely because it yanks us from the present and transports us into a dark, foreboding, and hateful racial past. Or does it?
The nation is presently torn between a vision of national thriving that borrows from the demented and twisted mindset encouraged by neo-Nazis and assorted bigots and one that owes a debt to confronting our worst instincts and communing with the better angels of our nature.
Antebellum forces us to confront the fact that in the midst of such epic seizures of social discontent, the choice to revert back to a racist past without hopping in a time machine to get there is a truly horrifying thought – and according to this film, a realistic prospect. The horrors of racism and slavery are most clearly seen when lives otherwise meant for excellence and greatness and freedom are subject to subservience, oppression, and humiliation.
The white supremacist imagination has featured Black bodies in its fantasies as stuck perpetually in slavery, and if there was any way such an imagination could have its way, Black folk in 2020 would be somehow transported back in time when the rawhide whip of the malevolent overseer lashed bodies with a message of brutal domination.
If Antebellum is not quite a fever dream, it is a film born of a nightmare – in the mind of its creators, and in the national imagination from which we scarcely seem able to awaken. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that we feel the trauma and thrill, the horror and catastrophe, of the racial nightmare of slavery. With this remarkable film, they have managed to throw fresh light on an ancient malady in a way that is both scary and compelling.
For singer and actor Janelle Monáe, the decision to work with first-time directors was a canny one. As an activist herself, Monáe chose a project promised to work within the horror-thriller genre to deliver a challenging and thought-provoking movie that would not end for the audience when the credits rolled.
“Christopher and Gerard’s script was a conversation starter around race, politics, what it means to be an American, and what the American Dream means today – all in a thriller unlike any I’ve seen before,” she says.
Monáe also points to the film’s more horrific moments. But instead of relating supernatural events, Antebellum spins a tale of real-life terrors. “The concept of silencing black people is pure horror,” she explains. “Chris and Gerard leaned into the framework of a psychological thriller to depict these horrors.”
The filmmakers approached Monáe to portray the two characters because they were huge fans of Janelle as an artist and especially loved one of her first albums, Many Moons, as well as her work in the film Moonlight.
On-screen Janelle has this otherworldly mythological presence in her face, soul, and spirit; it’s a quality unique to her. With this movie, people will continue you to take notice of Janelle’s incredibly riveting performance.
Monáe was moved to join the project by the chance to play Antebellum’s two extraordinary protagonists – Veronica and Eden. “When I read their script, it was, like, ‘Pow!’ –because it was full of twists. I love psychological thrillers that go in directions you’re not expecting. You think it’s one thing, but it turns out to be another.”
For Monáe, Antebellum provided the opportunity to portray a woman, not unlike the real-life figures she’s long admired. “I felt like I know, love and respect so many women who reminded me of Veronica – powerful, community-serving, strong-willed women who refuse to have their voices silenced as they represent those who are marginalized,” she shares. “So, I wanted to take on a character that could make us feel proud, especially in today’s climate. I think it’s important to honor women like that, through this film. There are heroes like that all over this country.”
Monáe as Veronica is a trailblazing figure whose new book ’Shedding the Coping Persona’ points to how marginalized people throughout history have had to take on a certain persona in order to survive – reducing or even eliminating their true selves, including their humanity, in order to be accepted within mainstream society which is still happening in our world, today with people of color, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who’s still being marginalized.
Veronica’s book is a roadmap to break this vicious cycle of inequity. But at the same time, it has drawn the attention of dark, nationalistic forces that will go to extraordinary and terrifying lengths to silence her powerful voice.
Going a step further, Monáe echoes the notion that Veronica “represents nothing less than a modern superhero, and we don’t see enough of those types of characters in our films.” She points to a big action scene where “Veronica really shines as she takes on the symbols of white supremacy and toxic patriarchy. She’s trying to save herself and the people around her.”
Monáe hopes “audiences gain a deeper appreciation about what it means to be black, a woman, and a member of other marginalized groups. It’s a discussion that should be had amongst everyone. Antebellum may also lead you to look at how abuses of power happen and to think about our future and how we’re going to protect this next generation from repeating the mistakes of the past. We don’t see that on-screen as much as we should.”
Antebellum releases September 18th on PVOD.