Sadistic Confederate soldiers chasing a Black slave with a rope around her neck is a terrifying sight in any movie, much less as the opening of a horror flick that threatens to get much worse. What makes the new psychological thriller “Antebellum” effective, however, is not just studying the past of America’s original sin but deftly showing how it still paints our present day.
Coming on the heels of successful social thrillers like “Get Out” and “Us,” “Antebellum” (★★★ out of four; rated R; available Sept. 18 on streaming and video-on-demand platforms) uses slavery as a metaphor to grapple with our continuing struggles with systemic racism – well timed to current discourse. The complex thriller also delivers an existential, Shyamalan-esque mystery to make things that much more interesting.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, known for their activist shorts and videos, “Antebellum” takes a while to figure out where exactly it’s going. But a strong performance by Janelle Monae (in her first lead film role) will more than keep you invested until “Antebellum” gets really good.
The film hinges on two distinct eras and Monae playing dual roles, the first being a slave named Eden. On a plantation where slaves fill every need for the Confederates – including a drawling villainess played by Jena Malone – Eden weighs the possibility of escaping vs. staying to take care of her fellow slaves, such as newcomer Julia (Kiersey Clemons).
Suddenly and inexplicably,the scene shifts to modern times and we’re introduced to Veronica Henley. Monae’s other persona is a sociologist who argues the disenfranchisement of Blacks is written into the DNA of America, keeps diplomas from Spelman and Columbia next to her picture with President Barack Obama, and literally wrote the book on the intersection of race, class and gender.
She leaves the family behind for a trip to a conference in New Orleans and encounters a series of strange occurrences: There’s a run-in with a mysterious and condescending Southerner (also Malone), as well as a weird little white girl in an elevator. Veronica also weathers a number of racist microaggressions – from a belittling remark about lipstick and her skin tone, to getting seated by the kitchen at a swanky restaurant with her girlfriends (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles) – that seem just as sinister as the inhumanities Eden and others suffer when picking cotton.
Most every character not played by Monae is fairly one-dimensional, and her personas both face physical struggles and fights for their identity. How they connect is the film’s big twist, though “Antebellum” picks up like a charging horse in its wake and Monae, in cathartic fashion, becomes a rousing action heroine. A talented artist who’s shone in supporting roles (“Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight”), she gets the spotlight and is game for the fright-fest challenge of exploring real nightmares historically faced by Blacks in this country rather than the fantastical.
The movie itself overcomes its imperfections with a higher cause to its horror. Arriving now at a point where inclusion is of increasing importance and disenfranchised people realize the power they wield (even while there are those who try to tamp them down), “Antebellum” discusses those issues, forces us to look at where we are through the prism of two eras, and essentially asks us if we want to return to a hateful past or drive forward and break free from those chains.