Antebellum Parent Guide
The movie's premise is fascinating, but the execution is hit and miss.
Parent Movie Review
Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), a successful author and expert on the history of American Constitutional law and race, has found herself out of her depth. Although she has a good job and a loving family, Veronica is far from home. Very far. She’s found herself on a plantation somewhere in the deep South, a plantation run by overseers in Confederate uniforms and worked by other African-Americans who have also been abducted. They live in huts, pick cotton, and are expected to be available and subservient to any of the ruthless white people in charge. But as unpleasant as it was to get in, it’s going to be even harder to get out.
I think the best way to describe this film is “harrowing” – and deliberately so. The premise is essentially the worst actors from the Charlottesville Rally acting on that famous quote from The Great Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”. The antagonists of the film are rabid white supremacists, hellbent on recreating the supposed glories of the antebellum south. It’s interesting to note that this has nothing to do with states’ rights: they just want to own other people and treat them like chattel. In that sense, I suppose, they are doing an excellent job recreating the past.
Although I think the premise is fascinating, the execution is a little hit-and-miss. Janelle Monáe shines in the lead role, but the writing occasionally lets her down. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, and the film doesn’t always seem confident about how it wants to explain its premise. (Compare this to Get Out. The villainous Armitage family seem largely crazy, but by the end of the film their actions are explained and their plans exposed.) I’m still not entirely sure what the end-goal of the Confederate maniacs in Antebellum was, apart from torturing African-Americans. The film keeps hinting at broader motives which it never explores.
This is, as you may have already guessed, not a great choice for family viewing. For an R-rated horror flick, this does pull a lot of punches and the violence isn’t as intensely graphic as many other films in the genre. The unpleasantness comes through the context and the visceral reminders of slavery which are disturbing enough without extra gore on top. The sexual violence is thankfully cautious - it’s just explicit enough that you know what’s happening, but there’s no nudity and a minimum of actual activity.
If you can stomach the content, there’s an interesting movie in here somewhere, but it’s somewhat muffled. I had really hoped that this film would go deeper on the fundamental cultural problems that cause this kind of hate, and while it does mention them, it’s never quite as much as I wanted. Hopefully, it still manages to be a conversation starter about some of the broader problems in our society, and gets people interested enough to do some serious reading about racial justice. It’s well shot, well cast, and well set-up: it just lets itself down on the ultimate execution.Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Starring Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, and Jena Malone. Running time: 105 minutes. Theatrical release September 18, 2020. Updated September 18, 2020
Watch the trailer for Antebellum
Rating & Content Info
Why is Antebellum rated R? Antebellum is rated R by the MPAA for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references
Violence: On multiple occasions people are severely beaten, either with fists or other implements. A woman is branded with a hot iron. A character is shot and killed. Several people are killed or injured with a variety of edged weapons, including a sword, a knife, and a hatchet. Several people are burnt alive. A person commits suicide by hanging.
Sexual Content: There are several scenes which allude to or imply rape. One scene briefly depicts rape but without nudity nor graphic detail.
Profanity: There are 30 uses of the sexual expletive, 5 uses of scatological cursing, and occasional use of mild profanity and terms of deity. There are also several uses of racial slurs.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Individuals are shown drinking alcohol. Individuals are briefly seen smoking tobacco.
Page last updated September 18, 2020
Antebellum Parents' Guide
Sarah (Lily Cowles) says “The unresolved past can certainly wreak havoc on the present.” What does that mean? What does that mean in the context of the film? What does that say about modern American culture? What effect do you think the past has on the present?
Is this an accurate portrayal of historical American slavery? How does this depiction compare to contemporaneous historical accounts of the daily life of enslaved people in the American south? What were the broader effects of slavery on life in America at the time?
The people running the plantation are shown wearing Confederate Army uniforms. What is the connection between the Confederacy and slavery? How did the Civil War start in the first place? What events preceded it? How was it resolved? What are the lasting effects of that war on modern politics in the United States?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
This film has a definite focus on black scholarship and academia. Some good places to start there include Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Historical novels about slavery include firsthand accounts like 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass.