In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie. Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
So Confederate soldiers sang as they marched to battle, to destruction, to death. For four years they fought for Southern pride and states’ rights, including (and especially?) the right to own another person.
In a corner of Dixie sits a plantation, as graceful and beautiful as a fresh magnolia with its huge pillars and swooping staircases and gleaming white paint.
But a few steps more, and the plantation’s glow fades to darkness, and the picture-perfect sights twist to horror-ready sounds: The whips. The screams. The tearing pop of gunfire.
The Confederate soldiers say these people must learn their masters; must learn to obey even the smallest and slightest of commands.
“Wherever you were before, whatever small freedoms you might’ve enjoyed, I’m here to tell you that’s all over,” says the plantation leader, a Confederate who loves liquor, sadism and the South. Here, every order and whim of a white man (or woman) must be “followed obediently, and with a smile.”
But despite the whips, the guns, the screams, one woman resists, engaging in a war of wills with the Confederate commander who has sought to master her.
“Say your name, girl,” he growls. “Say your name.”
She refuses. The belt draws cries, but no name. The fist to her face elicits only screams. But when he draws a branding iron from the fire and pushes the red-hot metal into the small of her back, she wails in pain and horror and defeat.
“Now, let’s try this again,” the man says, breathing heavy. “What’s your name girl.”
And finally, the word leaves her—pushed by a branding iron, pulled by terror, given shape by the woman’s full-throated agony.
“Eden,” she cries, barely audible through the sobs.
Eden. It’s a beautiful name. It speaks of a garden long ago, destroyed by temptation and sin and pride. It speaks of a reality that could’ve been, a better world that never came to be.
But it’s not the woman’s name. No.
She holds her other name in her belly, silencing it but not forgetting. Never forgetting. It’s not time for it. Not yet. But she’ll speak it again when she takes her stand … to live or die in Dixie.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
In a more modern America, Veronica—aka Eden—is something of a crusader for equal rights, both for minorities and women. She’s written a book called Shedding the Coping Persona, exhorting black women to demand their due. She speaks on political programs and as part of educational conferences. But she clearly wants to be someone who ultimately heals racial divides rather than exacerbating them.
When her young daughter, Kennedi, sees Veronica debate a man on television, the daughter asks why the man’s so angry. “Sometimes, what looks like anger is really just fear,” Veronica says. She reminds Kennedi of when a schoolmate seemed to hate Kennedi, until the schoolmate realized that Kennedi wasn’t out to steal all of her toys. “Now you two are like best friends,” Veronica says.
“So are you two friends yet?” Kennedi asks.
“Not yet, baby,” Veronica sighs. “Mommy’s working on it.”
While some will not agree with everything that Veronica says, we can see from the outset how devoted she is to her little girl. When Kennedi draws her mommy a picture before Veronica flies out to a conference, Veronica promises she’ll keep the drawing with her most important papers. In her hotel suite, she tapes the picture up on her wall. And when the story takes its strange turn, we know that neither that picture, nor Kennedi, nor Veronica’s (apparent) husband, Nick, are ever far from her. Indeed, her family may be what keeps her going.
Before leaving, she also reminds her husband that Kennedi only gets 20 minutes of screen time. “Be strong,” she says.
A woman wears a cross around her neck. After she dies, a man—perhaps her husband—puts it around his own neck in remembrance, kissing it as he does so.
In a hotel room, A yoga instructor leads Veronica through a health and centering session. Both end the session with the Hindu greeting, “Namaste.” Veronica also tells a hotel worker, “God bless.”
A Confederate claims that he and his fellows are “descendants of the gods.” We hear that one of Veronica’s friends is teaching a session on “the exorcism of the unconscious past.” Learning that, Veronica tells her friend that perhaps “our ancestors haunt our dreams.”
The African-American women at the plantation are clearly used as playthings for the white men who frequent the camp.
“These sapphires are here to satisfy your every need,” an apparent Confederate captain tells his men. “Whatever those needs may be.” One soldier does indeed go to one of the women’s hovels after the banquet; both man and woman understand what’s expected.
Eden is raped by her own captor at least once: We see him roll off of her still-clothed body. She’s utterly, apparently, emotionless.
In the present world, Veronica goes out to dinner with a couple of her girlfriends. One, Dawn, tells Veronica beforehand to dress provocatively, even though Veronica has no desire to go dancing or clubbing after dinner. Dawn feels like it’s Veronica’s responsibility to dress sexily, because if she doesn’t, Dawn will have less of a chance to have sex herself. (A man does indeed hit on Dawn, and she gives him her number and promises that “this can happen.”)
Veronica’s apparent husband doesn’t mind her going out with the girls. He sends a text message asking her (far more crudely) if her breasts are on display. (Dawn asks Veronica if her guy is sending her erotic photos of himself—again using far more crude language.)
We see Veronica and husband Nick in bed together (clothed in PJs), and Nick invites her to stay in bed longer than she ought. Veronica takes off her shirt to reveal a sports bra underneath. Women wear garments that showcase cleavage.
The movie opens with a murder. A woman tries to flee the plantation but gets lassoed around the neck by a rope. She still struggles forward, gasping for air, but a Confederate soldier walks up to her and pushes her over with his foot.
“Kill me,” she says.
“Don’t you worry, girl,” the Confederate says with a sneer. “I will accommodate you.” He draws back a few paces and shoots her.
She’s far from the only one to die on the plantation, and we see where many of the dead go: Into a small crematorium filled with ashes. Some people are burned alive in there, too: We don’t see them, we only hear them.
A pregnant woman is kicked in the stomach and later suffers a bloody miscarriage. Women elsewhere are brutally and often bloodily beaten. A man is killed by a couple of hatchet blows. Someone else is skewered by a sword. Several people engage in fights, suffering plenty at each other’s hands (and the objects they hold).
Characters get knocked around, and sometimes knocked out, by rifle butts. A person is roped around the neck and dragged, alive, through the woods on horseback. Someone dies after getting conked in the head by a huge chunk of rock. Another person is stabbed to death. A woman hangs herself. As mentioned earlier, Eden is beaten and literally branded. Someone fights against an unseen attacker; the attacker eventually knocks her out by slamming her head against an SUV window.
About 25 f-words and five s-words. We also hear one c-word, along with “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “t-t,” “p—y” and “d–k.” God’s name is misused four times, half of those with the word “d–n.”
When the plantation’s lead Confederate soldier bends down to give his wife a kiss, she recoils briefly. “You started early,” she chides, suggesting that he’s already begun drinking. Indeed, the man is seen often slurping from a small flask he always keeps with him. Other soldiers drink at dinner, and two get seriously drunk late one night.
Veronica and her friends share a bottle of champagne during dinner. When a would-be suitor orders Dawn a drink, she complains that if he’d been on his game, he’d have ordered another bottle of champagne for the trio.
We see, obviously, quite a bit of racism here—much of it virulently blatant and abusive, while some of it more subtle and in a more modern construct. The movie contains far too many instances to detail here, but here’s an example of the first kind: A man wears an iron collar with bells on it—a device intended to both humiliate him and to prevent him from escaping. An example of the second: A concierge ignores Veronica (who’s asking for a restaurant reservation) to take a call, then only accepts Veronica’s request grudgingly.
The marketing for Antebellum tells us that it’s produced by the same folks that produced Jordan Peele’s difficult-but-acclaimed horror films Get Out and Us.
Antebellum shares superficial similarities with Peele’s directorial efforts: It deals explicitly with racism and its unseemly legacy, for one thing. And it’s also a horror movie with some unexpected twists. (Or they would be twisty if you hadn’t seen the movie’s surprisingly revealing trailer.)
But gone is Peele’s directorial deftness and tension-releasing wit. And despite a really fine performance by star Janelle Monáe, what we have with Antebellum is a dark, joyless, on-the-nose sermon.
Hey, we Christians know that sermons have their place—even, sometimes, in the context of movies. And this sermon carries with it some potent talking points.
But Antebellum is a disordered, dispiriting and sadistic story that assaults your senses more than it pricks your conscience. This obscenity-laden, corpse-strewn horror flick quickly becomes less a prescient commentary and more a Twilight Zone reject, simultaneously too bloody and, ultimately, too shallow to make the cut.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.