Of the many neat twists in ANTEBELLUM, the most disturbing of all is the one that concerns the state of race relations in the modern day, and how slavery still informs it. By contrasting the subtle, and not so subtle, micro-aggressions forced upon people of color in the present with the brutality of slavery as practiced in the eponymous time in the American south, the present and the past become intertwined in a way that explains much and damns more. There’s a reason that the film begins with Faulkner’s line about the past not being dead, it’s not even the past.
Cut to a plantation during the Civil War. An African-American couple is being separated forcibly by a Confederate officer (Jack Huston), with tragic results, and Eden (Janelle Monáe) is about to be broken by The General (Eric Lange). The brutality is suitably horrific, made all the worse by the particular rules of this plantation, that include stripping the newly arrived slaves of their names, and by denying them all the right of speech at any time unless given permission by a white person. The punishments are savage, even by the already brutal standards of the peculiar institution, and when Eden refuses to say her new name after being ordered to by the General, the effect of the torture inflicted, followed by a demand to have a chicken dinner ready the next night for her abuser, is like having the wind knocked out of you, so precise is the direction by co-writers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz . So palpable the performance by Monáe that is a finely realized blend of cognitive dissonance at what is happening and the abject terror she feels as it happens.
Or does it? Lying awake beside her rapist, Eden dissolves into Veronica and the present day. She is lying beside her doting husband Nick (Marque Richardson), and soon joined by beloved daughter, Kennedi (London Boyce). Far from victimized, Veronica is an affluent celebrity writer who takes on the patriarchy, as refracted through the omnipresent prism of racism, and she doesn’t advocate putting up with either. But this reality has its own intimations of trouble, from a hotel desk clerk subtly disrespecting Veronica in the city to which she has traveled for a speaking engagement, to the mysterious woman (Jenna Malone) who may or may be stalking Veronica under the cover of carefully studied civility. The only link between this reality and that of Eden is a little blonde girl who appears in both but is recognized by Eden/Veronica in only one.
An evening out with friends, one black, Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), and one white , Sarah (Lily Cowles), is not just an object lesson in how to treat a lady when sending over a drink, but also the near impossibility of a white person to catch the microaggression directed at Veronica and Dawn. A lesson that is less didactic than revelatory in the pointedly non-confrontational tack that Bush and Renz take, and the quick, but potent, quick glance shared by Veronica and Dawn when they realize Sarah, whom they love, doesn’t get it.
ANTEBELLUM, however, does confront it brilliantly with an ending that is all the more disquieting for being so firmly in the realm of possibility. Make that probability.