This story contains spoilers for Antebellum, available on VOD September 18.
“The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner wrote in 1951’s Requiem For A Nun. “It isn’t even past.” That quote is the guiding light of Antebellum, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s horror thriller that takes us on a journey through the horrors of history, while making clear they’re a lot more current than we’d like to think. Remember that quote, which appears as a prologue to the initial action. It comes up over and over again.
Antebellum opens with a single sweeping shot, taking us from a little white girl frolicking in the front yard of a Southern plantation, all the way to the horrors upon which her carefree happiness is built. The Civil War is raging and Confederate soldiers have commandeered the property, along with its slaves, to work towards their cause. As the camera weaves through the property, we catch our first glimpse of the woman we know as Eden (Janelle Monae), passed out and strapped to a horse.
The first third of the film is spent in this universe, as we follow Eden through the nightmare of life as a slave. She’s branded and repeatedly raped by a commanding Confederate general (Eric Lange), and remains in near-constant silence because of the ruthless rules enforced by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), who oversees the running of the plantation. If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know that this film takes place in two different time periods. The question is: Is this a movie about time travel, a la Octavia Butler’s Kindred? Or is some other mystery at play?
The answer to Antebellum’s key twist lies in its second act. That’s when the action moves from the Civil War South to present day Georgetown, where Veronica Henley (also played by Monae) lives with her husband Nick, (Marque Richardson) and their daughter, Kennedi (London Boyce). A successful sociologist, speaker, and activist, Veronica has recently written a book about the concept of “coping personas” used by marginalized people to get through traumatic situations. To promote it, she’s been making the rounds on cable news as a pundit, often facing off with conservative white men offended by the very idea of a Black woman who has something to say and does so with confidence and pride.
As we soon learn, Veronica is on her way to New Orleans for a summit, where she’ll be presenting her work. But before she leaves, she has a disturbing video meeting with Elizabeth (Jena Malone), a stranger we, the audience, recognize. It’s the same woman we’d seen on the Civil War plantation, whose young daughter skips around in the opening shot. So, how did she get from there to here? Is the mysterious woman her descendant? And if that’s so, could Veronica and Eden also be related?
Veronica’s trip down South is uneasy from the get-go. The woman at the front-desk eyes her suspiciously when she makes a reservation with her two best friends (including Dawn, played by Gabourey Sidibe) at one of the city’s most upscale restaurants. One there, they’re seated at the very back, near the kitchen. But things go off the rails when Veronica leaves to go back to her room. As she enters her Uber, the driver refuses to turn off their blaring music. Suddenly, Veronica gets a call from a woman who claims to be her real Uber driver, waiting in front of the restaurant. But how could that be? She’s already in the Uber. (This is why you should always, always, check the license plate number!!) In a horrifying flash, Veronica realizes she’s in danger. That’s when the driver reveals herself: It’s Elizabeth. Suddenly, Jasper appears in the backseat and knocks Veronica out cold.
In the third act, we find ourselves back on the plantation, except this time, it’s clear we’re not back in time. This horrifying place exists in the here and now, in a theme park a la Westworld — without the hosts. Eden is Veronica. She’s simply the coping persona the latter has taken on in order to survive the repeated aggressions of plantation life. You might remember that when the Confederate commander asks her for her name in one of the film’s initial scenes, she can’t answer right away. It’s only after he beats her with his belt that she finally whispers “Eden.”
With that mystery solved, there’s the matter of the plantation itself. As we’ve already established, the action we’ve seen unfold thus far isn’t taking place in the Antebellum South but in the present. In the third act, after the twist is revealed, the general has a cell phone. The two soldiers who so casually spoke of raping a slave woman are paying for the experience of living as Confederate men, free to be as openly racist and downright evil as they please. It all comes together in the final moments of the movie, when Veronica fights to escape her captivity.
After knocking out the general and placing a call to her frantic husband, Veronica takes down the plantation’s Confederate flag from its mast, wraps it around her assailant, and drags him to the shed. We’ve seen what this shed is used for earlier in the movie: Dead bodies are placed there to burn. When Veronica goes to light the flame, she’s surprised by Captain Jasper, who buys her story that the general is hurt and needs his help. As Jasper runs towards the shed, he happens to mention the general’s real name: Senator Blake Denton. The man who’s been torturing Veronica is a U.S. Senator. Of course, once Jasper is in the shed with Denton, Veronica locks them both in, setting fire to the shed with them inside.
She then saddles up Denton’s horse and makes a run for it, with several soldiers (whom we now know are just cosplaying, although with live rounds — unlike the early iterations of Westworld, you can die in this simulation) hot on her tail. Also following her is Elizabeth, who turns out to be Denton’s daughter. She and Veronica fight, and Elizabeth ends up dead. Clad in a Union army coat, Veronica then rides hard across a battlefield, where grown men pretending to be Civil War soldiers are facing off. As the bombs go off, Veronica rides past a sign that reads: “ANTEBELLUM, Louisiana’s premier Civil War reenactment park. All major credit cards and Apple Pay accepted. Anyone disturbing the peace of this plantation will be prosecuted. Blake Denton, owner.”
This sign tells us two things. First, that this is all part of some elaborate game that regular people pay money to participate in, as evidenced by the groups of tourists we see making their way inside. Second, that it’s owned and operated by a member of Congress — confirmed by a banner out front calling for Blake Denton’s reelection. And finally, it’s an allusion to a similar sign from the 1939 film Gone With The Wind, a wink towards cinema’s long history of complicity with white supremacy.
As Veronica rides away, we see police cars entering the property. The investigation continues throughout the end credits, which shows the FBI questioning victims and advancing towards the main house. Though Veronica makes it out, the ending is a bittersweet one at best. Antebellum may be shut down, but the culture of white supremacy it represents lives on.
Still, despite all this heavy symbolism, Antebellum’s ending left me unsatisfied. Purely from a story perspective, it raises more questions than it answers. There are crowds of people waiting to enter this park, yet no one has ever leaked the secret of the real-life slaves being tortured there? I could believe an alternate scenario where everyone does know about this, and have chosen to remain inert. But the presence of the FBI, and the speed with which they shut things down, appears to negate that interpretation. More broadly, however, Antebellum’s biggest failure lies in the fact that in order to achieve this surprise ending, it foregoes the kind of character development that would have made it meaningful. What do we really know about Veronica after all this? Not nearly enough.