At the film’s beginning Monáe is Eden, enslaved on a plantation at the onset of the Civil War. The plantation boss, Confederate Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), is a cruel drunk with a strict set of rules. He demands no talking and obedience “with a smile.” The cost of speaking out of turn or not working hard enough is misery. Forced to endure sexual exploitation, physical trauma and mental anguish, one night Eden shuts her eyes and goes to sleep.
When she awakens it’s 2020 and she is Veronica Henley, a famous writer on American race relations with a busy schedule that includes television appearance and live speaking engagements. Her latest work, “Shedding the Coping Persona,” a roadmap to revolution for historically marginalized people, examining the intersectionality of race, class and gender, is a hot button book that touches on some of the same concerns that plagued Eden’s life.
“Black women are expected to be seen and not heard,” she says at a conference. “To the patriarchy we’ve been practically invisible but their arrogance is their greatest vulnerability and our greatest opportunity.” She closes her speech with a quote from Assata Shakur, “The only thing that we have to lose are our chains.”
Although successful, wealthy and well-known, she is treated with condescension from everyone from a white television host to a hotel concierge, from a ghostly little girl in an elevator to a corporate headhunter (Jena Malone) who gives her kudos on her lipstick choice. “It compliments your skin tone,” she says. “I don’t think I could… pull it off.”
Eden and Veronica have a connection, brought forth in a ferocious climax, but there will be no spoilers here.
In a “Twilight Zone” finale “Antebellum” asks if Eden was a figment of Veronica’s imagination or vice versa. It’s hard to describe without giving anything away but the writing-directing duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have done some of the work for me, foreshadow the ending throughout. For instance, at one point Veronica tells her friend Sarah (Lily Cowles), “Our ancestors haunt our dreams to see themselves more.”
“Antebellum” is a horror film that doesn’t rely on jump scares to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Instead, with a tip of the hat to Rod Serling, it blends social commentary on the legacy of American slavery with the supernatural to form a provocative essay on how the unresolved past can create turmoil in the present.