The first 40 minutes or so of Antebellum is straight-up torture porn.
That’s not a term I throw around lightly. Indeed, it’s not a term I use much, as its chief function is to delegitimize the survival horror as a subgenre (Grant Watson has written extensively about this over at FictionMachine, and you should go take a look). Nonetheless, here it feels appropriate. Antebellum drops us into a Southern plantation at the height of chattel slavery and takes an almost fetishistic approach to depicting the degradation and violence visited upon the Black slaves by their white Confederate guards and overseers. It’s absolutely relentless, the highlight — or nadir, really — being a scene where slave Eden (Janelle Monáe) is branded for her rebelliousness.
It’s a tough watch. But little anachronisms in the period detail indicate that all is not what it seems on the surface. Then, after beating us over the head with atrocity after atrocity, the film drops us into the modern world, where we meet author and academic Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe again), an African American intellectual and talk show veteran whose work focuses on the contemporary wounds left behind by historical racism. After such a wild and troubling opening act, Antelbellum slows down about three gears as we get to know this seemingly new character, who leaves her upper-class home and picture-perfect husband and daughter for a speaking engagement in another city. Afterward, she heads out for a night on the town with her two besties Dawn and Sarah (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles), and we, as an audience, are wondering how we got here from where we started, or perhaps how we’ll get back to where we started from here. Are Veronica and Eden the same person? Echoes of each other? An ancestor and a descendent? Have the screenwriters read Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred?