Dept. of Bad Ol' Days


The main body of this Antebellum review is spoiler free, with all spoilers confined to the very end of the article.

Antebellum: adjective (an·​te·​bel·​lum | \ ˌan-ti-ˈbe-ləm  \)

Definition: Existing before a war. Especially existing before the American Civil War.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

No, Antebellum isn’t the story of the legal battle between the musician Lady A and the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum, instead it’s the latest entry in the “elevated horror”/ “societal thriller” genre.

These labels, commonly attached to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, are often derided by “true” horror fans, but nonetheless apply to Antebellum, as the horror mostly comes from the injustices found in the world around us. Primarily in the United States. It’s a link the marketing for the film is keen to highlight (Antebellum shares a producer with Peele’s first two films as director) but it can’t quite muster the same shock and awe as those two modern classics.


Opening with a brutal long take that catalogues the daily indignities and cruelty visited upon Black slaves on a plantation in the Confederate South, we are introduced to runaway slave Eden (Janelle Monáe) as she is returned to the cotton plantation.

For the next 40 minutes or so, Eden and the other slaves, endure seemingly endless misery and terror at the hands of those who would deem themselves their betters. On top of the horror of having their person-hood revoked, the slaves aren’t even permitted to talk to each other, or even sing when picking cotton.

What’s Goin’ On?

The modern parallels come literally marching into view as a troop of confederate soldiers chanting “Blood and Soil,” and bearing torches, arrive to set up camp.

As Eden meticulously plans her escape, seeking out the floorboards that make the least noise in her cabin/prison where she’s raped by the gross “gentleman” landowner each night, the film abruptly shifts to the modern day.

Veronica Henley, again played by Monáe, is an author, mother, and educator, who’s promoting her book on racism “Shedding the Coping Persona.” In print, person, and on TV, Henley speaks out against the constant microaggressions Black Americans have to put up with on the daily, calling for their end, even while enduring most of them at the very hotel she has been invited to speak at.

How are the two women connected? The answer is truly horrifying, and I won’t give it away here (see the spoilers section below if you really want to know), but the film never quite lives up to the terror inherent in its concept.

As should be expected by now, Monáe is fantastic, in a film that spends long periods of time focused on her face, as she vacillates between fear and determined rage. Few of the other characters, however, are given half as much to do.

Terror Beyond Imagination?

Thanks to that “no talking” rule on the plantation, we only really get to know one other captive, and lets just say that doesn’t end well. A friendship with another slave is hinted at, but it’s never really established.

Whatever tension (as opposed to misery) that’s established soon wanes thanks to the pacing of the film. During the first half, it’s not entirely clear what you are watching. A damning indictment of the inhumanities doled out by the supposedly educated South? A catalogue of the causal horrors wrought by the endpoint of white supremacy? Civil War torture porn?

By the time the film shifts to it’s modern day setting, so much time is then spent on set up again that it almost feels like the beginning of a totally separate movie. The throwaway nature of much of this section, apart from the casual racism Veronica has to suffer, makes it feel like this could have been the actual start of the movie. It also makes the film feel much longer than it’s brisk 105 minute runtime.  


I’ve nothing against racists being portrayed as the morons that they obviously are but the Antebellum lords and ladies here are portrayed as so clownishly evil that it unfortunately robs them of some of their threat.

When the connection between the two women is finally revealed, the film finally settles into a satisfying escape/revenge thriller, but it never manages to be quite as shocking or satisfying as Get Out or Us, two films which the marketing continually brings up, much to its detriment.

Despite the great performances, Antebellum doesn’t quite live up to the mystery or promise shown in that tantalizing first trailer.

If you want to know more read our spoiler section below.

105 mins (seems longer)
Director: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Writers: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Cast: Janelle Monáe, Kiersey Clemons, Tongayi Chirisa, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Achok Majak, Jack Huston, and Lily Cowles

Antebellum is currently showing in Malaysian cinemas. Keep reading below for spoilers on the film’s plot.

This segment contains spoilers for Antebellum, including discussion of the central conceit of the film. You have been warned.

If you don’t want to now how Eden and Veronica are linked turned back now.

Seriously, major spoilers from here on. Last chance.

Antebellum Spoilers

They’re all aliens!

Just kidding, but seriously this is your final, final warning. Any and all complaints shall be filled in the bin.

So, the big reveal of Antebellum is that Eden and Veronica are one and the same person. Veronica was kidnapped by modern day white supremacists and packed off to “white supremacist” Westworld meets “racist” The Village.

It’s a great idea for a horror movie, the nightmare of slavery viewed through the lens of a modern mindset. Not that slavery was any less terrifying for those who lived through it.


As mentioned above though, the execution still leaves something to be desired.  There may be plenty of hints that the plantation section is set in the present day, but apart from the “slaves” burning the cotton they’ve been forced to pick, I didn’t spot any. Maybe the songs they were whistling were modern, but I didn’t catch it. Without that hint of mystery, the first half of the film just feels like a less compelling version of 12 Years a Slave.

A League of Her Own

Monáe’s performance is so good, you can easily see Eden and Veronica as two completely different characters, while at the same time the one person altered by her ordeal. When this becomes apparent as the film enters its final act, I was left wondering what was the point of so much that had come before.

The film feels so much longer than it’s 105 minutes. This is mostly due to that first section feeling slightly directionless. Is it an escape movie? Something else?

Even in the modern day sections, apart from repeatedly establishing that Veronica is an extremely competent horse rider, and pretty flexible thanks to yoga, much of what occurs feels totally disposable. It doesn’t move the story along much, which isn’t really enjoyable an hour in to a movie.

Without the societal structures that saw fugitive slaves returned to their slave owners, or worse, I kept wondering wouldn’t everyone be trying to escape the nightmare plantation, all the time? Sure, the “slave owners” disregard for human life being so complete that they have a specific building just for cremating runaway slaves, would work as a deterrent, but would that really deter everyone? Perhaps if we’d seen just how far “Eden” had made it during her first failed escape attempt, it might have better established the stakes.

As the film concludes with Veronica escaping the plantation on horseback, bloody axe in hand, exultant at having wreaked revenge on her tormentors, a quick insert shot of a gaggle of police squad cars, made me think the film might have one more horror in store. That like Jordan Peele’s alternate ending for Get Out, Antebellum might have gone for a far more downbeat ending. One that might be a more accurate reflection of the current state of race relations in modern America. Thankfully, Veronica wasn’t gunned down down by racist, trigger-happy cops just as she regained her freedom. Unfortunately that is a headline that’s more likely to occur in the real world.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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