There’s a kind of trick our mind plays on us when we consider the horrors of the past. We distance ourselves with platitudes like “That was back then” and “I wasn’t there, what has it got to do with me?”. We conceptualise the past as if it exists on a seperate land, a different level, unconnected to the present. A kind of platform we jump to and from. Film has exploited the ability to time travel so we are all very familiar with films that jump back and forth between time periods, using time travel to great dramatic effect. Antebellum now joins its ranks.

Already the title of this film gives us a clue that we will be entering into the Pre-Civil rights era of the American South – Antebellum. It was a period in the history of the United States where slavery was brutally enforced and upheld in white society as a social good. Watching the start of this film you are entered into a world of brute force and violent oppression, and it’s a difficult watch. I noticed while watching this that I felt a distance, a time based allowance of ‘this isn’t now’. It was a kind of emotional removal that allowed me to watch these scenes of brutality that are all too familiar so many decades into the Civil Rights Movement. At the time of my watching, it is March 2022, two years after the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement after the very public and very tragic murders of Breonna Taylor & George Floyd.

The slavery of the past….or is it?

We are introduced to our main character through a torturous scene were she is branded, and forced to tell the man torturing her, her name. Her name is Eden. She is enslaved in a cotton-picking field, and we are not told very much about the who, what, why and when.

Eden in the Antebellum South

A new woman has been captured, and she is named Julia by a little white girl, being trained up in the dehumanisation of Black people by her mother. Julia goes to Eden and says “I know who you are, I need your help.”

Cut to the future, and we see a woman the spitting image of Eden, the same actress, Janelle Monáe. Eden is now Veronica Henley, a Doctor in constitutional history, and a Civil Rights advocate. The time is now, she is ensconced in all of our technological privileges, and all of our modern luxuries. She goes out for a night with her friends, and we are treated to a funny repertoire by Gabourey Sidibe. The women are extremely conscious of the white privilege of their other friend, who is white, having experienced no micro aggressions at the hotel they are staying at. This speaks to the way that racism is often played out today, where the aggressors often hide under plausible deniability.

We are so accustomed to this kind of time split movie that I assume Veronica is some kind of future doppelgänger of Eden, and that this film is a compare & contrast message.

The time is Now

I am wrong.

What is shocking for me as a viewer, and what is the absolute strength of this film, is that it flattens time.

Veronica Henley is not existing in some post-racist future, as opposed to Eden’s racist hell. Antebellum is not in fact showing us separate layers of time in which we jump back and forth, unaffected though we may feel. No, what happens next in Antebellum is that Veronica is kidnapped, and we are forced to reckon with the fact that Eden and Veronica are the same person. Veronica is Eden, captured by racists today, renamed by her enslavers, and the torture we saw at the start of the film is revealed to be what happens to Veronica next. She is being enslaved by Civil War re-enactors and the past comes rushing up into the present. I as the viewer am confronted with my increase in empathy now that it is someone from NOW being tortured. That increase in empathy reveals the emotional distance I had for Eden. Wiping it away with the “that was then” kind of hand waving, trying to excuse my own guilt for such atrocities by pretending that racism is over. The fact that it is a time-peer woman being treated this way, is unbearable.

Eden is Veronica is Eden

Why wasn’t the treatment of past woman – Eden – unbearable? Well it was, but the time separation in my mind was used as an excuse. I imagined – wrongly – that we as a society, are all better now. I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to agitate, advocate, and liberate. The strength of Antebellum is to show me that I am wrong.

Antebellum may be a slow burning start, but it’s gripping in its narrative. The use of conventional film techniques to jump time periods give the viewer expectations that are disrupted. Antebellum confronts us with our own biases, time based as they may be. I wanted Veronica to survive and to escape, and she does, to a degree. The film cuts off just as she is free, we do not bear witness to her recovery. That would be my only criticism of the movie, that I am denied the absolute certainty of her reunification with her family. But that’s the thing about oppression, it doesn’t get wrapped up in a neat little bow. Racism didn’t end. It isn’t over. The horror continues on today. Those on the side of peace and justice must advocate now, speak up now. Because racism exists now, and it can rise again. Anywhere, and at any time.

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