Spoiler alert! This story describes the ending of “Antebellum,” so if you haven’t seen it, it will be spoiled … because spoilers. Last chance to turn back before we spoil everything in this movie.
“Oh, great, another slave movie” is exactly what I was thinking the first 38 minutes of writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s “Antebellum,” but clearly the psychological thriller turns out to be much more than that.
Starring Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Eric Lange and Jack Huston, “Antebellum” opens with scenes of a Civil War-era plantation. We see a drowsy Monáe being ushered in, draped over a horse, while Confederate soldiers try to violently prevent an enslaved Black woman from running away – but something is slightly off.
The woman at the start of the movie has a septum piercing, a pregnant Julia (Kiersey Clemons) recognizes Eden (Monáe) as being from Virginia and somewhat a prominent figure (how does she know?!), there’s an airplane flying overhead and we definitely see a cellphone at least twice. I wasn’t the greatest at U.S. history, but I could’ve sworn there were no planes in the 1800s, let alone cellphones.
It’s all the more confusing when these scenes are juxtaposed against a modern-day America, where Veronica Henley (also Monáe), a successful author, is tapped to speak at a conference in New Orleans. At first, her only connection to Eden appears to be a nightmare she had early in the film, but she also encounters figures from the plantation.
‘White men owe Black women peace’: Janelle Monae on why ‘Antebellum’ is relevant
Turns out, there are white people going around America in the here and now kidnapping Black people, and using them as props for their little Civil War re-enactment game. The audacity. We find out that these aren’t actually two separate time periods, but that the atrocities of the 1800s are happening in 2020.
Throughout “Antebellum,” we get hints the times are intertwined, one being when a sinister Elizabeth (Malone, whose character name is the same in both eras) video-chats with Veronica. Elizabeth compliments Veronica’s Pat McGrath lipstick enviously, and she steals the lipstick shortly before kidnapping Veronica in an act of cultural appropriation.
“You think about hatred of others as a repelling (thing), you don’t like them, you don’t want to look like them, but really there’s a deep undercurrent of jealousy and want of what another person has,” Malone says. “Wanting to push someone in the mud while daydreaming about taking their clothes for yourself, taking their language for yourself, their music.”
The ending of “Antebellum” is one we all hoped for, but didn’t expect. Eden/Veronica escapes her cabin while the plantation’s owner known as “Him” (Lange) sleeps beside her. She attempts to make her way to freedom, and takes down anyone who stands in her way.
Veronica ends up burning Him and Captain Jasper (Huston) alive inside a shed and drags Elizabeth on the back of a stolen horse, ultimately killing all three. We see Veronica reign supreme in the end, saving not only herself but the rest of Black folks trapped on the plantation.
“Endings matter. I was not interested in doing a movie around white people saving Black people. If this Black woman didn’t come out heroic and victorious, I wasn’t going to do it,” Monáe says. “This is not a white savior film, this is not a film where Black women don’t win.”
Veronica taking things into her own hands was more about justice than revenge, Bush says, adding that Black people “cannot rely upon the government or authorities to provide the justice we deserve.” He says her triumph represents the “beauty of the resilience” in Black women generally, which comes at a great cost.
“You don’t get through this unscathed,” Bush says. “We are all still carrying around the trauma that our ancestors, our grandparents, our great-grandparents our great-great-grandparents and perhaps even us still carry.”
Even though Veronica succeeds, there is significant loss. After suffering through enough trauma on the plantation, Julia takes her own life.
Bush describes Julia as a commentary on how Black women endure so much, noting that Julia could be a person already dealing with mental health issues on top of her pregnancy and just not understanding how all of this is happening.
“It was about Sandra Bland, it was about Black women who are medical outcomes for not being believed, it was about our issues with childbirth – it’s so many things wrapped up into one character,” Bush says. “You do feel hopeless and you can feel hopeless even in today’s America.”
Review: Janelle Monae’s ‘Antebellum’ tackles the horrors of slavery – with a rousing twist