Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we look at the ending of Antebellum.
You have clicked on this article because you have either watched Antebellum already (my sympathies) or because you have not but you want to hear all about its much-hyped twist. Normally, this is the point where I would tell those who haven’t watched the movie to go and do so, and then come back. Not this time. This time, I give you my full blessing: spoil yourselves without suffering the pain of watching what might be the most woefully misguided film of 2020.
The first act of Antebellum introduces Eden (Janelle Monáe), an enslaved woman working on a cotton plantation. The second act opens with Veronica, also played by Monáe, a hugely successful sociologist living in the present day. You think maybe there are some time-travel shenanigans going on, à la Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, or that this is a tale following the rich tradition of Black intergenerational trauma narratives like Alex Haley’s Roots and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
But then the big reveal comes, and it’s neither. It’s something infinitely stupider: Veronica is Eden. She gets into what she thinks is her Lyft and only realizes too late that she has instead hopped into the car of Elizabeth (Jena Malone), the batshit crazy ringleader of a group of next-level Confederacy-loving Civil War reenactors who kidnap and enslave Black people in order to gain a fully authentic Confederate experience. The United Daughters of the Confederacy ain’t got nothing on Lizzie here.
So we come full-circle to the enslaved Veronica-Eden and her fellow captives desperately plotting to escape to freedom, which does not, in this instance, require making it to the Mason-Dixon line, just off their captor’s compound — or, you know, to a phone with a working signal.
It’s a dumb, genuinely awful twist that only gets worse the more you think about it. It’s like Antebellum is trying to counter the bogus argument that racism was a problem solved in the 1960s by making the exact opposite but equally ridiculous argument—that the difference between the Black experience of the antebellum South and the present is mostly WiFi and airplanes. Antebellum is also, ironically, the feature debut of the writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who claim that they think it’s “really important that any of the art we put out into the world advances the urgent conversations that need to be had around a whole host of issues.”
What urgent conversation is this one supposed to be advancing, lads? Always check the license plate? Because otherwise, all this dumpster fire has to offer is exploitative violence against Black bodies stripped of actual historical commentary by the fantastical nature of its premise. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave this is not. You don’t get some sort of karmic gold star just for having a historically inspired whipping scene. Adding one more derivative, thematically bankrupt slave story to the pile does not satisfy any real moral imperative. More is not inherently better on this front.
Anyway, back to the ending of Antebellum: Veronica makes her escape. She kills Elizabeth! And her rapist, who we only know as “Him”! And other Confederates! She rides away to freedom on a horse! And it’s clearly supposed to be a Powerful! Moment! Even though, you know, the idea that she is triumphantly free callously ignores all the emotional and physical scars Veronica’s gained through this ordeal (she’s been literally branded). Not to mention the crazy amounts of therapy that she’s going to need to help her move past the trauma and survivors guilt (basically all her enslaved friends die gruesomely, usually in front of her) caused by this ordeal.
Let’s not forget, if we’re actually being realistic here, Veronica is also probably going to be stuck with a murder trial, because that’s due process, even if those assholes deserved it. And of course, there’s no way the whole story doesn’t become a media sensation, so now instead of being known for her best-selling book and successful career, she’s going to be known first and foremost as the woman who survived the crazy slave-branding cult that wasn’t Nxivm.
So there’s your explanation for why Antebellum ends with the specific moment of the bloodied, battered Veronica escaping on a horse, as opposed to actually reuniting with her family or anything like that — because, sadly, her ordeal isn’t over. But thankfully, this hot mess of a movie is, and with any luck, it will fade into obscurity sooner rather than later.