Antebellum got mysterious from its first trailer, and for good reason. The film, which premiered on September 18, follows successful writer Veronica Henley after she was kidnapped and transported back to the antebellum era. Forced to live on a plantation called Eden, she is working on a plan to return to the life she knew before it was too late.
As I watched the trailer, I thought that supernatural forces may be at work when it comes to Veronika's kidnapping and metamorphosis in Eden. I even thought there were links to Octavia Butler's classic 1979 novel, relationshipfollowing a young black writer who finds himself transported back to a pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland from 1976, but I was wrong on both counts. I had high hopes for the movie, with all of the setup and a star-studded cast of Janelle Monáe. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when the movie's big twist turned out to be incredibly lackluster. Read on to learn why the setup doesn't work, how the twist is disappointing, and how the consequences feel like an empty gesture.
The film begins with Eden already living on the plantation. Our only indication that something is wrong is a shot of a woman's modern septum piercing right before she was brutally murdered by a Confederate soldier for trying to run away. For her part in the attempt to escape, Eden is tortured by "Him" who regards her as his and hers alone. Over the weeks, Eden seems to have grown complacent, hoping to avoid the torture "he" subjects her to. One night, Eden falls asleep next to "Him" and wakes to the ring of a phone, suggesting the experience might just be a dream.
In reality, Eden is Veronica Henley, who is going to a conference after a catastrophic phone call with a racist headhunter named Elizabeth – the plantation lady from "The Dream". At the hotel, Veronica endures multiple instances of microaggression from hotel and restaurant staff before going out with her Friends. The big twist shows after she and her friends split up for the evening.
The setup could have worked if the film had started with Veronica in the present. Instead, we are treated with a scene of terrible violence before we even learn Eden's "name". What was probably meant to be a metaphor for how blacks can be viewed as nameless and voiceless when it comes to violence against them leads to the setup botched and the stake lowered. We don't know anything about who the real Eden is or what their backstories it has. We know she shouldn't be there and we want her to escape, but we don't know how to get home. Even when Veronica is with her friends these days, they feel more like caricatures of people than like anyone to connect with. And all the correlations we could make between the "past" and the present, like the fact that the headhunter is the same woman from her "dream", are not half as shocking as if the film had been structured differently.
The biggest crap of all is the twist. It turns out that the opening of Antebellum is not a dream after all, and learning about Veronica was just looking back to give us some context on how she ended up on the plantation. As soon as "Him" uses a cell phone to answer a mysterious call, we know that the film does not contain any time travel or supernatural elements, just a racist version of M. Night Shyamalans The village. The plantation is a playground for racists to act out their sick and twisted fantasies at the expense of their abductees – blacks handpicked by Jena Malone's Elizabeth. Veronica is the only exception Elizabeth's father, Senator Eden, chose because of her outspoken nature.
At the end of the film we find that Veronica / Eden was not far from "modern day" all along. The plantation she is being held at is a civil war re-enactment park called the Antebellum. It's wild to believe that all of this violence could be kept a secret and that not a single person would leak what's going on in the back of the park.
Throughout the film, we see Veronica / Eden prepare for a possible escape, and when another abductee commits suicide she decides enough is enough. There is an intense fight between him / Senator Eden and Veronica / Eden before her friend, known as a professor, comes to her aid. When Professor / Senator Eden is mortally wounded by him, Veronica / Eden manages to get the Senator's phone and mortally wound him. Veronica / Eden wraps the Senator in a Confederate flag and calls his "soldiers" to help him before they are locked in an incinerator and burned.
The final obstacle for Veronica / Eden is Elizabeth, who sets out to find her former abductee. Veronica / Eden gains the upper hand and ties Elizabeth to the back of her horse. She pulls the other woman behind her as she escapes, with Elizabeth dying at the foot of a Robert E. Lee statue.
What should be seen as a triumph feels hollow compared to the horrors that the movie Veronica and us face. We never get any insight into the trauma the black characters experience other than pain and suffering on a surface level. It feels like all the actors in the film have been wasted, and any characterization seems little more than two-dimensional representations. Even with Veronika's escape, it should be much more important to find out what happened to her afterwards. Has the park been closed? Have you made amends? Did everyone involved with antebellum know what's coming to them? Ending their escape without mentioning what happens next is just another way the creative team has failed Antebellum. Ultimately, it's still unclear who this film was for, especially because of its waste of talent and a great premise.