[Content Warning: This piece contains information and description of troubling current and historical events, reference to racism, and some upsetting language. This piece contains spoilers for ANTEBELLUM.]
The United States is wracked with a fever, and we’re reaching the breaking point. We are in a cultural moment of being weary of systems and institutions that have done harm to others, weary of upholding “ideals” that conceal and excuse that harm, and weary of glossing over the sins that are woven into the fabric of this country. Horror, as it always has, is the first to rise to the occasion and meet this cultural moment on the field. Horror is the first place that we begin to deconstruct, discuss, and work through our greatest cultural anxieties.
Horror films like Get Out and Candyman, to name a few, have already begun to do the work of placing horror firmly within a Black scope. Speaking directly to the horrors of the Black experience using a language, a shorthand, and a history that is expressly for and pertaining to Black people. Likewise, the South as a region and as a culture is deeply embedded in the horror genre. The South on film and in horror often hearkens to ghost stories and hauntings. Fitting when we account for the fact that the South is an old place, content to be in close courtship to its past… and therefore haunted by it.
The haunted South goes deeper than Spanish moss in misty bayous and air that is heavy to breathe—blame the humidity or blame the atmosphere of a place that is old and has seen many things. Horror walks hand-in-hand with the South, on screen and in reality, because the South is birthplace to America’s deepest historical shame. Black horror, as we know it in this country, lives in the haunted South. Antebellum is a spotlight on the ghosts of the Confederacy that continue to haunt the South and, by further extension, the entire nation. Antebellum is a confrontation of Black horror, past and unyielding present. This film, arguably better than any other, understands the South as a haunted region that continues to be a foundation of terror.
Starring Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, and Jack Huston, featuring Kiersey Clemmons and Gabourey Sidibe, Antebellum is helmed by writing and directing team Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz. In Antebellum, successful author and sociologist on racial matters Veronica (Janelle Monae) finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past…”
Antebellum appropriately, and pointedly, begins with this famed William Faulkner quote. The purpose of its inclusion is obvious: in the South and in the lives of Black people, the past is not a fleeting, forgotten thing. It’s a vengeful spirit.
The film speaks to this perfectly, by employing a very intentional and impactful narrative structure. When Antebellum opens, the viewer is thrust directly onto the plantation. First, the camera pans over a warmly lit lawn, a young girl running up to the steps of a grand plantation house to be greeted by the smiling mistress in her bright dress. This is the image sold by countless Southern wedding planners, “turn a blind eye” tourists, and, at one time, Southern propaganda around the Lost Cause narrative that idealized the Antebellum South as a time of fine manners and American-bred gentility.
The camera moves beyond the plantation house to marching units of Confederate soldiers in uniform. The soldiers run their drills in the shadow of the enormous house and crisply uniformed house slaves do laundry, as the Confederate flag climbs to the top of its pole. Passing through this vignette, the camera finally settles on the darker slave quarters. That warm summer glow is gone, as are the pretty trappings of the grand house. This is also the exact moment in the film where the first acts of brutality and violence begin as a Black woman, attempting escape, is murdered and her corpse dragged back to the dark quarters.
This sequence alone carries the first of many confrontational truths in Antebellum. The grand plantation home has always been linked to the cause of the rebel Confederacy. The Confederacy and the plantation have always been linked to upholding the institution of slavery and all the brutality and injustice within. There is no separating these features. They flow together. All of the ugliness and blood have always existed in the shadow of the beautiful plantation homes, behind the mask of genteel Southern manners, and always underneath that flag.
In the first act of Antebellum, the viewer is subjected to the harsh and violent world of this plantation. At first blush, one gets the impression that we are watching a historical drama reminiscent of 12 Years a Slave. There’s one crucial tell—the rhetoric of some of these Confederate soldiers speaks to the nation, the United States, in an appropriation and assertion that the cause and ideals of this Southern space are the ideals of all America. Some of the strongest statements of the film are found in the throwaway lines. A marching unit of Confederate troops chants “blood and soil” as they carry torches, in a direct parallel to alt-right extremists in Charlottesville, VA. An authority in uniform screams “comply” at a cowering Black woman before striking again and again. In a speech, a Confederate general makes a brief reference to the little-known Civil War battle of Milliken’s Bend—significant because it was an instance in the war where a Black brigade of Union soldiers went toe-to-toe with the Confederacy in combat.
From the plantation, we’re ripped into the present day and a moment of Black empowerment. Veronica is educated and successful. Her Black spouse equally so and their child with all the potential that lies ahead. Veronica is an accomplished author and speaker on racial issues and sociology. However, despite all the advantages and accomplishments that she enjoys, in this second act Veronica is beset by recognizable micro-aggressions. A hotel clerk brushes her off, a high-end restaurant seats Veronica and her Black friend and coworker at a hidden away and undesirable table, and passing moments, gestures, and comments reach for her hair, her lips, and her body. The modern world of this second act of Antebellum could not be farther removed from the brutalities of the plantation—and yet here is a successful, accomplished, and educated Black woman being poked and prodded and scooted aside anyway.
It’s vital that the plantation scenes of Antebellum be punctuated by this revisit to the modern world, prior to Veronica’s being kidnapped. The brutality of slavery in the past is hidden inside every micro-aggression, even the smallest seeming instances of casual racism, and those tiny actions conceal and continue to breathe life into the horrific actions and thoughts of the kinds of racists that many of us are comfortable believing faded into history. The past is not past and it’s not “ancient history,” either.
Different Moment, Same Political Problems
Antebellum is not simply raging against the institution of slavery and the Antebellum South. The film is littered with very pointed attacks and moments that string together a legacy of political strife, influence, and conflict when it comes to race in the United States. Antebellum aims its criticism beyond the time and space confines of the Antebellum South and into the South in a global context. Antebellum acknowledges the United States as a whole and a long history of political movements that have continued to perpetuate the evils upheld by the Confederacy.
Perhaps the most interesting and meaningful villain in Antebellum is Jena Malone’s Elizabeth. She first appears as a plantation mistress, sexless and maternal in a classic portrayal of the Cult of True Womanhood. Later, she appears again as a conservative “head hunter,” appearing at the conventions and spaces where Veronica operates. Elizabeth is the driving force behind the plantation. She selects the victims of the plantation, she orchestrates the attack, and she upholds the institution.
In the climax of the film, as Veronica is making a mad dash for freedom, Elizabeth is her most aggressive pursuer. As the two fight and struggle for control of a gun, Veronica shouts, “What kind of a woman are you?” It’s a moment that can easily be lost in the high energy scene, but the call to Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” rings clear. In the fight against racism, from the Antebellum period onward, white women—specifically, in this instance, the Daughters of the Confederacy—have held a large role in upholding Lost Cause propaganda. The majority of Confederate statues and monuments that we see so often centered in some of our ugliest modern-day debates did not go up during the Restoration period following the Civil War.
The vast majority of these statues and monuments were erected in the 1900s, as the country edged closer to integration and racial equality became an increasingly important issue. The pathway to racial justice has historically been blocked by the Daughters of the Confederacy and the marble monuments to the Lost Cause that they erect. In Antebellum, after Veronica successfully wins in a scuffle with Elizabeth, Veronica rides off on horseback, dragging Elizabeth behind her via a noose (in a fashion that mirrors the death of the first Black woman murdered on the plantation, at the start of the film). Elizabeth struggles and claws as Veronica rides forward. Finally, with a sickening thud, Elizabeth’s life ends as her head is struck on the marble base of a statue to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
It is discovered in Antebellum that Elizabeth’s father, a portrayed Confederate general with a disturbed sexual fixation on Veronica, is in reality a Republican state senator. In brief moments of the film, he can be heard talking about “mouthy darkies,” blending the language we are familiar with from historical accounts to contemporary conversations about gerrymandering and conservative judges. This nameless general is obsessed with Veronica, from before her time on the plantation, and was obsessed with her as an outspoken Black woman. He selects her specifically for kidnapping out of both a fetishization of her and the desire to punish her outspokenness.
In his final moments on-screen, the General whispers that “we are nowhere and everywhere.” It is easy to look at contemporary racism, juxtaposed to the dark history of the South and lull oneself into a false sense that that kind of horrific racism only exists and thrives in those backwards places. Not so. Antebellum may draw deep from its Southern roots, but the warning is global. As the General dies, he is wrapped in the Confederate flag—a testament to the true beliefs that some politicians secretly cloak themselves in, pretending not to exist, but hiding in unexpected places.
Ghosts of the Confederacy. Warpath Towards the Future.
The final scenes of Antebellum unfold quickly. It is a mad rush for Veronica to escape and get home safely. Time is running out and every second counts, but the very last thing she does before she flees is take down the Confederate flag and deposit it around the corpse of the man who entertained his racist fantasies in secret. This, I would argue, is the thesis of Antebellum.
In the last shots of the film, Veronica bursts out of the trees on horseback. Cloaked in a Union soldier jacket, she rides like hell to escape her captors at the hidden plantation and races past a sign for a Confederate Re-Enactment show. The performers of the re-enactment respond in shock as she races through their ranks. The white tourists do not notice anything amiss. To them, she’s part of the show.
Antebellum is horror. It is about the historic and lived horror of Black people in the American and global South. What passes as ancient history or a tourist attraction is horror. The film bridges the brutal past to the willfully ignorant present. Antebellum is often defined as marking the period before the American Civil War. Its actual definition notes events that occur or exist just before war, any war. We in this moment, watching this film, have not come near as far as we’d like to believe.
Antebellum is not a statement, but a scream. Janelle Monáe is at her very best and her stellar performance is only bolstered by the incredible work of the ensemble. Excellent, brimming with detail, and thoroughly researched, this film boasts some of the most stunning cinematography of the year. Haunting and horrifically beautiful, Antebellum is the most truthful portrait of the South to exist on film.
Antebellum is now On Demand.