REVIEW: ‘Antebellum’ (2020) is a Unique Look at History’s Grip on the Present

Rating: 5 out of 5.

There is no better time for this film to be released than in this present moment, and it will do so much for Black female representation in media.

With more films centred around the Black experience in recent years, there’s a fine line separating representation and trauma porn. When the brutalization of marginalized people is shown onscreen, the stakes have to be genuine for the violence to feel justified. If marginalized people must go through pain, the ends must justify the means—and Antebellum does just that. Every violent act holds weight here, and nothing is excessively forced upon the audience. “The past is not dead,” William Faulkner is quoted at the beginning, “in fact, it’s not even past”—and this film shows exactly that.

With a sullen look on her face, Veronica holds a burning torch walking away from a shed behind her that is lit on fire.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

The film follows Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), a successful author promoting and advocating for the progression of Black people. Act One opens on a plantation, full of beautiful imagery juxtaposed with horrific acts ranging from murder to abuse to assault, in ways that this generation can only imagine. The colours used to introduce the audience to this world are very deep earthy tones, symbolizing the dark roots of the plantation’s past. During the more intense violent scenes, the film utilizes either real fire, like the fireplace, or warm tones to symbolize the rage and intensity felt by Black people. The entire first act grabs the audience from the very start and doesn’t let go for a second. The world that is portrayed is both accurate and captivating, leaving the audience wanting more.

Act Two, however, shifts to the Black experience in modern times, focusing on Veronica’s home life, career, and friends. It shows that despite her successes, she still faces microaggressions in her daily life. These instances are thankfully not the focal point of the act and instead, it paints a picture of what Black excellence looks like. It’s refreshing and uplifting to see this in a film, a depiction so rare in a world where Black misery floods the media.

Veronica poses with two friends, played by Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles, for a selfie in front of a black SUV.  She wears a green dress, while they are in black.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

But it is Act Three’s twist that turns the whole film on its head by gradually revealing a secret plan, unfolding in a way that brings the audience to the edge of their seats, waiting in suspense. There is a sense of completion as events from the first act come full circle and play out in the third. This act is a rollercoaster of emotions and does an amazing job, along with the other two acts, of making the audience feel viscerally present as well as relate to the characters.

It’s clear that writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz did their research when it came to historical accuracy, accounting for every detail from costuming to set design. The chilling soundtrack also adds to the film’s greatness by reflecting what the characters are feeling in each moment and enhancing the atmosphere of this world the audience is engulfed by. All of the thought and hard work put into this film by the directors are complemented by the extraordinary cast, especially Janelle Monáe. The hero of the film is a Black woman who is both a warrior and a courageous leader, which is fitting due to the role Black women played during slavery. They have always been at the front lines of change, fighting against the systems that chain them in pursuit of liberation. Keeping this perspective in mind encourages the audience to actually consider about historical accuracy and representation as well as about every brave Black woman whose sacrifices paved the way to life as we know it today. There is no other possible hero for this story, and Janelle Monáe embodied that immaculately.

The overall message of the film rings eerily true as it urges the audience to reflect on the country we call home and what freedom, equality, and truth really mean today. There is no better time for this film to be released than in this present moment, and it will do so much for Black female representation in media.

Directed By: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

Produced By: QC Entertainment, Lionsgate

Cast: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Available On: Amazon Prime