“The past is never dead. It's not even the past." - William Faulkner
Antebellum takes an Afro-futuristic approach to Black storytelling of resilience in a slavery context. The audience is immediately introduced to a “slave” named Eden but later exposed to modern-day scenes of the same woman whose real name is Dr. Veronica Henley. At first, it seems like the film is telling a horrifying historical narrative of slavery, and Dr. Henley has somehow time-traveled to the 1860s, but in actuality she has secretly been forced into living as a slave at a Civil War Reenactment Park. This act of erasing an educated Black woman’s existence and agency in the 21st century, with such extreme actions, establishes a need to discuss Antebellum’s representation of racial aggression and the fear behind the hate.
Throughout Antebellum, the audience is exposed to overt racism that mimics the experiences of African ancestors just six generations ago. Black people are branded for running away, women are subjected to rape, and every Black person is picking cotton and beaten for speaking out of turn. These actions, along with kidnapping and resituating Black people on a plantation while taking away their given name, completely disregards their humanity. The film shows that once again, Black people are treated and seen as chattel in a Eurocentric hegemonic society.
Some viewers believe Antebellum is just another slave movie retraumatizing Black people with its gruesome behavior; however, I would like to challenge that notion. As a Black Horror film, the real fear is racism and using a contemporary depiction of slavery communicates to the viewer that though times have changed, Anti-Blackness is still an issue. Black people are still seen as monstrous, which causes more white fear and hate. For instance, the video clip above is a moment racial aggression is visible, even in the eyes of a child. Dr. Henley’s family is watching a recording of her on the news with a professor who believes she is doing a disservice to her people by conflating race with common sense. Her daughter asks why he is so angry, and Veronica responds that “sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear.”