Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Antebellum was only released in September of this year, yet it’s already made a big splash. Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the film is a commentary on the evils of racism, and its characters struggle with the desire to speak out against their oppression. This movie’s trailer hints at time travel and horror; the film leaves viewers amazed at the impressive visuals and acting and encouraged by its anti-racist message.
The film begins the story on a plantation in Louisiana. We see a young Black woman known as Eden who has found herself working as a slave during wartime as inferred by the sound of cannons in the background and the military unit stationed near the plantation. The audience is unsure exactly how Eden’s gotten there, but they do know that the general of the military unit has taken a special interest in her. She’s forced to share a cabin and bed with him when he visits the plantation, and she and the other slaves are subjected to hard labor and swift punishments for any rule breaking. The most significant rule—don’t speak unless given permission to do so.
The plot takes a sudden twist when Eden wakes up in an expensive apartment in modern time. In this time though, she’s Veronica Henley, a well-known sociologist and American History expert. She travels to a conference where she speaks about her newest book and the lingering challenges for people, especially women, of color. She urges the women at her presentation to be fearless in speaking up for themselves and others, a challenge made that much more difficult when Veronica ends up on the plantation.
Janelle Monáe plays the lead role(s) of Eden and Veronica. As the movie progresses, we slowly realize that the two are one and the same. The plight and abuse Veronica and the other slaves experience on the plantation already elicits a visceral reaction from viewers. It is magnified once we realize that Veronica is experiencing these horrors with the foreknowledge that there’s a better world out there somewhere. By juxtaposing this strong female character as she is in modern Louisiana, speaking out against racism and to promote Black women’s empowerment, with her time as a slave on the plantation, the movie makes a clear statement about how outdated and ugly the racist worldviews are of the soldiers and plantation owners. Monáe does an excellent job portraying Veronica, seamlessly shifting between the outspoken and strong sociologist and activist, and the abused but fearless slave determined to rebel even in a system built to keep her down. Janelle Monáe has even made comments in interviews saying that she was drawn to this role because of her character Veronica and the movie’s agenda to combat racism and start a dialogue.
The one complaint viewers could make is for the rapidity with which the film passes through Veronica’s time on the plantation to when she makes her attempt at escape. There is not a lot of build up or signs that time has passed; the audience must make that assumption. Even so, the film’s pacing stays balanced between scenes filled with action and those that allow us to slowly understand the upcoming plot twist.
Though this film expects such work from its viewers, it more than makes up for that with the vibrant images that both take your breath away and inspire a dialogue about racism and inequality. There are a number of striking shots in the film, one being a slow shot of Veronica marching with a lit torch while walking away from her defeated tormentors. Viewers will find themselves in awe of the strength and grit Monáe’s character displays to overcome her situation, and will hopefully find themselves discussing with friends and family the remnants of racism still haunting our country today. This movie opens up a dialogue desperately relevant in our present moment. It’s an excellent film for anyone looking for a movie that keeps its viewers captivated, inspires them to reflect and challenge their opinions and understanding, and showcases a talented cast that highlights Black female actors.
— Hannah Neeley
California State University, Stanislaus