While Gone with the Wind (1939) is well-acclaimed and beautifully shot, it has been criticized since its premiere for romanticizing the pre-Civil War South and glossing over the brutality experienced by countless Black Americans. The movie Antebellum (2020) acts as a rebuttal to its glamour and fond nostalgia by depicting a more historical and less polite existence for slaves on lavish plantations. The directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz even went so far as to obtain the actual lenses used to film Gone with the Wind, literally reframing the narrative on the antebellum era. Its theatrical debut was lost to the pandemic, so I bitterly paid $20 to watch it by myself on VOD.
The plot, reportedly originating from a nightmare that Gerard Bush once had, centers on a plantation owned by the Confederate army and their inhumane treatment of the slaves there. One of these is called Eden, though she is actually a 21st century writer named Veronica Henley. She is looked to as a leader by her fellow prisoners, though they aren’t allowed to speak to each other and their failed resistance and escape attempts are met with cruel consequences. The rest of the movie is spent unraveling the mystery of how Veronica came to be in this situation and what it will cost her to escape (I’ll note here that though some themes are similar, Antebellum is not based on or related to the novel, “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler).
The opening scene escorts you through the premises the same way any traditional horror setting would be introduced; pairing idyllic scenes of children skipping through fields and beautiful architecture with the horrific suffering of the enslaved, all set to the same, unsettling score. As the identity of Veronica is explored, the lines between past and present are blurred in brilliant and provocative ways; as they say in the film, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The choice to cast Janelle Monae as Veronica Henley was an important one; Antebellum has the privilege of being the first movie to land her a leading role, though her supporting work in Moonlight (2016), Hidden Figures (2017), and Harriet (2019) have sent her on a rapid rise to stardom. Monae’s commanding presence on screen anchors the movie in her struggle and her strength, but hers is the only character with whom I felt an emotional connection. I would have preferred more time devoted to her fight on the plantation than on her life as a writer, as it could have given more space for the development of her supporting cast, especially those played by Tongayi Chirisa and Kiersey Clemons.
I was puzzled to find that Antebellum hasn’t been doing well with critics or general audiences; there’s plenty of praise-worthy material and effort, even if I have my quibbles on execution. If you’re looking for something that’s going to make you jump and douse yourself in popcorn, this isn’t it, but it will leave you with a sense of unease that’s hard to shake after it’s over. The scariest part is its relevance to the world of the viewer. While Antebellum isn’t strong enough to flagship a movement, I do think it’s sufficient to remind us that there’s still some reconstruction to do on behalf of those who are taken for granted.
Wait until the VOD rental price has gone down. It should drop from $20 to $7 in about a month or so.
Recommendation: STREAM IT