This story contains spoilers for the film Antebellum.
Antebellum is the kind of film that requires true storytelling daring to pull off. A horror movie that blurs history, fantasy, and darkest nightmare, it would only work with the cleverest calibration, striking a balance between thrills and social commentary that recalls the films of Jordan Peele or the best episodes of Black Mirror. But Antebellum, the feature-length directorial debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, is a cinematic perversion of the genre.
The film’s arresting premise was laid out in its stark, effective advertising: What if a modern-day Black American woke up one morning to find herself on a Civil War–era slave plantation? That’s what happens to Eden (played by Janelle Monáe), though the movie opens on her life in captivity and takes a while to reveal its contemporary twist. Antebellum evokes Octavia Butler’s chilling 1979 masterpiece, Kindred, in which an African American woman is mysteriously transported back in time and experiences the deep suffering of her enslaved ancestors. But that novel didn't relish the brutality that its protagonist experienced, and it offered profound insights into power, memory, and the psychology of enslavement. Antebellum isn’t worthy of the comparison. It loads up on visceral scares and disturbing imagery in service of a shallow film that feels like a gory theme-park ride showcasing the horrors of slavery.
The first act is set on the cotton plantation where Eden is trapped. Everyone is correctly costumed for the time period (hoop skirts, gray military uniforms), and the movie’s production design is largely on point, but small anachronisms hint at the story’s eventual M. Night Shyamalan–style twist. Strangely, the whole estate seems to function only as a place for sadistic punishment. The first 40 or so minutes of Antebellum are a ceaseless torrent of violence and abuse: One woman is killed for trying to run away; Eden is forcibly branded by her captors; and, in an especially distressing scene, a Confederate soldier sexually assaults an enslaved woman. The terrifying realities of slavery are reduced to horror-movie tropes. This cycle of violence and rape exists only to gin up the viewers’ fury and prepare them for the climactic sequence of revenge.
The middle part of the film snaps the audience back to the present, crucially revealing that “Eden” is a popular lecturer and writer named Veronica, who has a gorgeously appointed home and a loving family. She’s great at yoga, a skilled horse-jumper, and loves to hit the town with her two best pals (Lily Cowles and Gabourey Sidibe). After the harrowing opening, this second act feels both excessively drawn out and curiously frivolous, as though Antebellum is merely killing time until, one night, Veronica is kidnapped and wakes up in the “past.” Here’s where I spoil the big reveal, in case you haven’t already figured it out: The plantation is fake, a present-day re-creation designed by rich racists so that they can act out vile power fantasies.
Veronica, the viewer is meant to understand, is the sort of independent and liberated Black person who might draw ire from racists. That’s why she’s been targeted and pulled into their absurd experiment at restoring the hierarchies of the past. If Antebellum has a point to make—and I’m being charitable here—it’s that insidious prejudice still exists today, and that some white Americans would all too happily participate in the institution of slavery if given the chance. But not only do the antagonists rob the Black characters of any agency and humanity—the story itself does too.
The most upsetting thing about Antebellum is its inability to explain why Eden is able to escape, whereas the dozens of other Black people who have been kidnapped are not. This isn’t a small plot point. The troubling implication is that Eden being well-off and successful somehow makes her more inspired to escape, and gives her the necessary skills to do so—in multiple scenes that I could scarcely believe, she uses her horseback-riding and yoga skills to evade danger. In contrast, the other captives, largely nameless characters with barely any dialogue, appear to accept their fate. They behave as though they’re indeed living in the 19th century, and as though this newly enforced system they’re subjected to is natural.
The entire situation raises basic questions that Antebellum has no interest in answering. Metaphorical horror fables depend on careful world-building by their authors, which can be difficult to accomplish in a limited running time—it’s what makes creators such as Peele and Charlie Brooker stand out. The simple, stark imagery of Bush and Renz’s film will shock audiences but collapse under scrutiny, lazily reminding us of the cruelty of America’s past while unintentionally embodying the ignorance of the present.