For Black folx, life in America can be a surreal horror story. As a Black man, I can leave my house right now and very plausibly never come back to my fiancée; moreover, my death will be excused by most Americans with no further consideration or sense of urgency — that’s my horrifying everyday reality. “Antebellum,” starring the phenomenal Janelle Monáe, is a prescient and timely film that reflects the hidden horrors of the racist monsters lurking in plain sight. The film is the latest in a series of films and shows that are a part of what many critics are calling a “Golden Age of Black Horror.”
In the film, a brilliant Black sociologist, Veronica Henley, awakes in a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War, where she lives the life of Eden — a slave who endures beating, sexual assault and the constant threat of death from her captors: a Confederate general and his wife. Before I go any further and potentially spoil the twist, if you’ve not seen it and don’t want any spoilers or near-spoilers, stop reading this article. Okay? Alright then, let’s continue.
The film links up with the all-too-relevant theme of the racist hiding in plain sight, not a cartoonish white supremacist hiding in a basement somewhere planning a domestic terror campaign. A racist on the hiring committee who says “unfortunately, they went in another direction” with a less-qualified white person; the racist on the school board who complains about baggy pants, braids and “anti-American” antiracist literature; the racist who talks about American values, lower taxes and protecting your neighborhood from “thugs.” I think you all get the picture, right? These are the real monsters who haunt the dreams and waking hours of Black Americans.
In the film, it turns out that Eden and Veronica are indeed the same person and living at the same time. After a flash backward to weeks earlier, we learn that one of the main antagonists, Elizabeth, captured Veronica during an Uber ride; we find out this is a “Westworld”-esque park for well-to-do white racists, who can pay to act as Confederate soldiers and reenact the worst horrors of slavery upon the Black kidnapping victims. The film doesn’t hold back on displaying the brutal and horrible degradation of the kidnapping victims either, but the most disturbing thing is that the white people who have concocted this crime operate Louisiana’s biggest Civil War reenactment parks in the film.
Of course the antagonists would run a large Civil War reenactment plantation in the South! In real life, Civil War re-enactment parks, as well as Confederate monuments all over the country, have come under scrutiny for how they misrepresent the motivations behind the South’s secession and slavery. Having the antagonists be those who truly want to go back to a time when they can be slave owners is all too relevant in 2020, as the sitting president won on a message that said, “Make America Great Again,” and is still campaigning on fears based on projections of chaos and threatening Black and Brown people.
Black horror has a long history of establishing a critique of American life from Black people’s points of view that is both a reflective catharsis and chillingly relevant. In the 1990s, Black horror films like the “Candyman” trilogy confronted racism, health, violence and the class stratification in America while calling on the very real, horrific laws and norms of lynching and anti-miscegenation. All of this provided a subversive public space to explore issues that were/are often shunned for the uncomfortable truths we don’t address as a society.
The racist themes and elements experienced by the protagonists resonate per a tradition joined by “Antebellum” and the new HBO show “Lovecraft Country,” though that takes place in the Midwest and Northeast of the 1950s. For example, in the most surreal episode of “Lovecraft Country,” one of the main Black characters, Ruby, experiences actual white privilege through a magic potion that puts her in the skin of white woman. Her experiences of white privilege are at first a bewildering surprise, and throughout we see the obliviousness and ease that her white boss and coworkers have with imposing their will on the one Black employee who was hired over Ruby prior to the potion. As Ruby witnesses her white male supervisor attempt to sexually assault the one Black employee in Ruby’s new workplace, Ruby is the only white person concerned about using her privilege to hold him accountable, while her white coworkers are having fun on the Black side of Chicago, fetishizing young Black men. The horror of realizing the implicit racism of her surroundings is actually a part of an intentionally silent contract: a silent conspiracy to keep “those people” on “that side of town” is the horror twist that many Black folx in America come to understand is the implicit bias we encounter in even the most “progressive” or socialist settings.
Fiction allows us to put the trauma up on the walls of our mind, examine it and make sense of it. “Antebellum” and “Lovecraft Country” do just that, along with other works such as “Get Out.” Racism creates trauma for those who experience it, yet it is perpetuated and normalized throughout American life. Catharsis comes from being able to confront it and be believed in how traumatic it is, and to have one’s pain reaffirmed instead of having it dismissed as an exaggeration. This genre may also be a useful tool to instruct those who are on the positive side on the privilege spectrum: white people.
Everyday microaggressions and the power of generations of accumulated power and wealth (i.e. privilege) will not be addressed by voting for Biden (but PLEASE DO VOTE — VOTE TRUMP OUT, JUST MY OPINION) or by some bill, but by intentional institutional reforms, collective cultural and normative shifts and open personal accountability for oppressors in this system. All of this is both hard and, to those who want to maintain the status quo, let’s be honest: It’s terrifying to them. When Trump supporters and their cousins in white liberal enclaves, whose Black Lives Matter signs adorn their lawns in gentrified areas (e.g. Seattle’s Columbia City), are confronted with the demands of dismantling systemic racism, many will say/do anything to avoid it or try to reconcile things without too much trouble. Nevertheless, our trauma persists, and the horrors of centuries of rape, brutality and the ongoing trauma of social, political and economic marginalization and demonization have created a waking nightmare.
Is it our job to relive our trauma on the big or small screen to educate others? Hell no. However, like the heroes of these stories, we can get comfort and find our own voices of courage when we confront our boogeymen or meme-Karen demons. Maybe we can also hold these stories up and compare them side-by-side with the lived horrors of 2020 America and show the monster its own grisly image in the mirror, so it can see what we see: the horrible monster that is the United States.
Read more of the Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2020 issue.