‘Antebellum’ is a tour-de-force that will soon enter the zeitgeist, and thusly, spoiled. Go see it while you can.
Visionary filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (collectively known as Bush + Renz) have been, at least until now, best known for their commercial short film social justice work. So, it’s no surprise that their first feature film, Antebellum, would pack a punch that also makes its viewer think.
(PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Antebellum is an amazing ride with plenty of twists and turns. If you don’t want any of it spoiled, skip the next three short paragraphs. If you must know what it’s about, read on, and I’ll try to be as cloudy as possible.)
Antebellum is about a slave girl named Eden (Moonlight’s Janelle Monáe) during the American Civil War who, along with her fellow slaves, is just trying to survive the cruelty of her Confederate masters.
But wait! Present-day bestselling author Veronica Henley (also Monáe) snaps awake in her penthouse bedroom. It was all a dream!
As Veronica goes about her life and book promotion tour, she starts to notice that the lines between her nightmare and her real-life are beginning to blur.
Antebellum is a hard movie to write about because it’s best experienced with no preconceived notions. Even that vague synopsis up there is a bit of a spoiler, because the first half of the movie, the plantation half, is almost like its own movie, independent of the modern-era chapter. But the present-day stuff is what’s in the IMDB synopsis, so it’s fair game to reveal.
Antebellum is also a hard movie to watch. The brutal cruelty of the slave owners is truly disturbing, as is the subtle racism that Veronica experiences in her day to day life. Bush + Renz have found a way to illustrate that attitudes towards African Americans haven’t really changed all that much over the last 200 years. Only the laws and social contracts have, and even those only offer selective protections.
Once Antebellum hits its stride in the second act, there’s an ongoing sense of confusion surrounding the story. Is Veronica going crazy, or is her nightmare really coming to life? Was it even a nightmare, or is it her in a past life? The two distinct plotlines of the movie, the nightmare and the reality, blend seamlessly, but when one spills over into the other, it’s either extremely creepy or overly wacky. And both are by design. Nothing is left to chance in a movie like Antebellum. When a spooky pale little girl in 19th-century clothes steps into a present-day elevator, it’s not an accident.
Bush + Renz inject just as much social commentary into Antebellum as you’d expect they would, and at a time in American history when racism is rearing its ugly head and the Confederacy is actually being defended by some, the message is powerful and poignant. Veronica’s field of expertise is sociology, and the emphasis of her writing is on the disenfranchisement of African Americans, so much of the commentary is obvious and heavy-handed. But there’s a subtext to Antebellum as well, and the parallels between the two halves of the story are chilling. The mindsets and values reflected in the past are still in existence today.
The biggest reason to see Antebellum sooner rather than later is the ending. It’s got one of those jaw-dropping Shyamalanian twist endings that requires the audience to be strapped into its seat. Clues are given throughout the movie (which makes Antebellum instantly rewatchable), but it’s not until the viewer is hit over the head with it that the whole scenario clicks into place. And it’s brilliant. But, like Chinatown or The Sixth Sense, it’s an ending that will soon be spoiled by word of mouth. So, see Antebellum before it becomes a part of pop culture history. It’s better to see it for yourself than to hear about it on the internet.