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In “Antebellum,” Janelle Monáe Contends With Slavery In America’s Past And Present

by Grace Weinberg

Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Out September 18

Janelle Monáe stars as the author and academic Veronica Hensley in Antebellum, the latest horror movie produced by the team behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. We first see her identified, however, as Eden, and in very different circumstances: as an enslaved woman in the Antebellum South.

Monáe, who previously appeared in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, gives us another incredible performance in Antebellum. Her ability to disappear into her character and perform within two different time periods heightens the psychological terror in the film, which speaks to Monáe’s acting abilities. She never fails to impress. 

When the movie begins, we’re introduced to the picturesque facade of the southern plantation. A little blonde girl runs across the front lawn of a typical nineteenth-century plantation, including everything from the farmer’s porch to the large Roman columns. What’s going on behind the home, however, is an entirely different story.

Alongside the slave quarters, women hang up clothes to dry while a plantation overseer terrorizes an enslaved woman who tried to escape with her lover. The beauty of the setting seems to contradict the violence that it hosts; it’s almost too picturesque, too serene. 

Antebellum is reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred, in which a Black woman unwittingly time travels back to the antebellum south. Just as the protagonist in Kindred is whisked away from her present into an unfamiliar time, Antebellum oscillates between Veronica’s life before and after the plantation, leaving us to wonder how and why she got there. Like projects such as Get Out and Us, it feels like you have to watch the movie twice in order to fully grasp the fact that reality is not as it seems. In Antebellum, you think you know what’s going on, but by the end of the movie, the writers have completely turned the narrative inside out.

Unlike other narratives of enslaved people that we often see in the media, Antebellum blurs the lines between time and space, past and present. A modern woman living and operating within an institution of the past raises questions about the legacy of slavery and its relationship to America’s current state of racial reckoning.

Just how far away from slavery are we when the very language of plantation overseers echoes conservative talking points that we hear today? Honoring “heritage” and respecting a “way of life” are racialized terms which many of us know were and are used to hide a blatantly racist ideology and agenda. Antebellum almost forces white America to contend with racism when they hear the language of today repeated back to them by a confederate soldier.

But Antebellum doesn’t just reveal how pervasive the history of slavery is. It explores how microaggressions and covert acts of racism feed into and perpetuate the larger violence that people of color, especially Black folks, face in this country. The difficulty Veronica faces checking into a hotel versus the ease through which her white woman colleague does is demonstrative of this normalized, everyday racism. Antebellum comes at a particularly fraught moment in our cultural present and forces viewers to think about race, white supremacy, and America’s monstrous history through the horror genre. (5/5)

Header image courtesy of Lionsgate

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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