It’s been said about the Civil War that the South lost the war but won the narrative, rewriting history to soften the Confederacy’s motives while enacting laws to uphold a uniquely American form of apartheid. In the face of more than a century and a half of such malignant propaganda, terrifying social thriller “Antebellum” lands like an explosive mortar — a potent, politically charged cross between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and an M. Night Shyamalan movie, wherein a successful Black woman (Janelle Monáe) is punished for challenging authority by being forced back into bondage.
How could any form of slavery still be possible in the year 2020? That’s the haunting enigma at the heart of this mind-blowing — and incredibly timely — horror movie from activist writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who saw their astonishing feature debut delayed by the coronavirus, only to resurface all the more relevant as the Black Lives Matter movement surges anew.
In a way, Jordan Peele opened the door for this kind of harrowing anti-racist social critique via “Get Out” and “Us,” inviting more supernatural statements along those same lines via his reboot of “The Twilight Zone.” Emboldened by their experience helming high-profile ad campaigns, and backed by “BlacKkKlansman” producers QC Entertainment, Bush and Renz swing for the fences their first time out. By the duo’s own design, audiences are likely to be confused at first as to whether they’re watching a period piece, a contemporary fable or some sci-fi combination of the two, à la Octavia Butler’s time-traveling “Kindred.” What’s unmistakable to all, however, is how the movie feels about the subtext of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra.
True to its title, “Antebellum” paints an idealized image of life on a Southern plantation, reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s beloved Tara from “Gone With the Wind,” as a little white girl in a bright yellow dress skips across the manicured lawn of this old-world estate. Unlike that controversial Hollywood classic — which recast the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in a mostly favorable, even romantic light — “Antebellum” proactively challenges the South’s romantic sense of its own past, as well as any delusions of living in a post-racial present. Outfitted at times with the same lenses used for “Gone With the Wind” (shooting a radically different widescreen image designed to honor those previously cropped out at the margins), DP Pedro Luque Briozzo’s camera pushes past mother and daughter to explore life among the slaves in their possession.
A menacing string score indicates that something more sinister is at work on this Louisiana cotton plantation, confirmed by a chilling tableau unfolding behind the house, as Confederate officer and property overseer Capt. Jasper (Jack Huston) threatens a slave couple with a loaded gun. This scene, which escalates to a brutal execution, establishes the stakes even before audiences have gotten their bearings: On this “reformer plantation,” disobedience — including both speaking without permission and failing to respond when prompted — can be punished by beatings or death. When Monáe’s character refuses to state her name on command, her owner (Eric Lange) brands her flesh by way of punishment.
Considering how tough it is to watch such abuse, perhaps “Antebellum” should have come with a trigger warning — although in the end, eggshell-brittle white audiences will likely be the most perturbed by what happens. On one hand, “Antebellum” exploits the very real fear Black people face in a racist society where certain fundamental human rights — namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are too often deemed alienable, as evidenced by disproportionately high police shootings, property seizures and incarcerations among African Americans. And yet, the mere mention of the word “racism” rubs many white people the wrong way. Can they handle a film that calls out white supremacy as aggressively and effectively as “Antebellum” does? (Bush and Renz have made a conscious effort to avoid the N-word, using less loaded epithets to convey the slaveholders’ antipathy.)
The first 40 or so minutes of the movie are the most difficult, set in what appear to be pre-Civil War times as a slave named Eden (Monáe) discreetly considers her options. She has worked out a system for avoiding the creaking floorboards and even noisier door hinges of her quarters, which allows her to meet with fellow slaves — handsome Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) and new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons) — even though speaking is forbidden among them. With her expressive eyes saying what words can’t, Monáe manages to convey the character’s intelligence, inviting audiences to anticipate how she might be able to turn this ugly situation to her advantage.
Just as Eden’s escape plans seem to be building momentum, a cellphone rings off-screen — an anachronistic interruption that snaps the film to another storyline far removed. This one also features Monáe, now playing a respected 21st-century academic named Veronica Henley, author of “Shedding the Coping Persona.” Capt. Jasper’s warning to the slaves that they must remain silent resonates differently in this timeline, where Veronica upstages a conservative pundit during a TV news interview. It’s empowering to watch, although the film’s tone — rendered increasingly nerve-wracking by composers Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur’s low, slow strings — suggests that there could be consequences for being so outspoken.
Leaving her daughter and husband in Washington, D.C., Veronica flies to the Deep South for a conference, where she’s booked into a fine hotel. While she and her ebulliently confident friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe, embodying the polar opposite of the victim she played in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”) catch up downstairs, a wealthy white woman (Jena Malone) sneaks into her room and rummages through her things. Her intentions aren’t clear, but they can’t be good, as Malone — who’s made a career of perversely complicated characters in movies from “Donnie Darko” to “Saved!” to “The Neon Demon” — slyly insinuates that beneath the veneer of Southern charm, this treacherous admirer can’t abide Veronica’s success.
After dinner at a restaurant — where Dawn stands up to a disrespectful “Becky” and talks down a desperate player eyeing them from the bar — Veronica winds up abducted, bringing the story full circle. With another half-hour still to go, “Antebellum” returns to the plantation, where Eden and Veronica’s characters effectively merge: Spiteful white bigots have swept in to punish this brilliant, vibrant woman for not knowing her place. But she’s hardly as defenseless as she may have initially seemed. If anything, her earlier hesitancy served mostly to misdirect. Seeing her opportunity, Monáe fully embraces the butterfly motif woven throughout the film, reemerging as a strong, resourceful heroine for the final stretch, turning her adversaries’ Confederate artifacts — flags, statues, uniforms — against them.
The suspense, until now keyed largely to the threat of danger in unknown circumstances, actually intensifies as the secrets of “Antebellum” become clear. Revealing the scope of this conspiracy in layers, Bush and Renz orchestrate the ensuing reversal of power with a symbolic force that goes beyond the stylistic, reaching into the realm of the iconic. Just as Capt. Jasper branded Eden early on, the co-directors sear certain imagery and ideas in audiences’ heads, using the power of the horror genre to reach deep into America’s collective psyche. While “Antebellum” is no ordinary zombie movie, it treats systemic racism as a kind of contagion that refuses to die, eating the brains of successive generations. There’s only one way to stop it, and that’s by blowing the minds of all those infected — which is precisely the impact “Antebellum” achieves.