There are many villains in Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s feature debut “Antebellum,” but none quite as vivid as Jena Malone’s nefarious plantation owner Elizabeth. A nasty piece of work in her own right, the character emblematizes the forces of oppression that power the film’s narrative. Built upon a consciously convoluted timeline, complete with editing misdirection and a chopped-up storyline, “Antebellum” follows Janelle Monáe as both successful modern author Veronica Henley and antebellum-era slave Eden, presenting the wholly different experiences of two Black women until the film mashes them together in unpredictable ways.
Suffice to say that Veronica and Eden intersect (to get into deeper detail would spoil the film), and while they are bonded by a litany of shared problems, none feel as immediate as the evil Elizabeth. It’s the kind of role that seems scary for a performer: Not only is she’s such a monster, but “Antebellum” also doesn’t shy from inserting that monster into the current culture. The racist ideology of a late-18th century plantation mistress is here and now, and as terrifying as ever.
For Malone, who has been acting since she was a child and has resisted easy classification as a performer, she regarded any fear as only a good thing. “I’ve never been the type of person to be really scared of characters that aren’t easy to bring to life, I guess, is the nicest way [to put it],” Malone said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “That whole spectrum of ‘villain-hood,’ things that are not easy to like, not easy to understand, those things never terrified me.”
Malone said she regards fear as existing on its own spectrum. “On the larger end of the spectrum of fear, it sort of renders you immobile, it can debilitate your choices, and you don’t really have much room to move,” she said. The actress prefers to live where things are more exciting than scary, which is how she felt about “Antebellum.”
“I felt some weird obligation to step in there and be like, ‘Now, let’s just wait. Hold your horses. Let’s see who this person is. Yes, they’re a villain, but let’s see what motivates them. Let’s see what scares them, let’s see how generational trauma affects them as well,’” the actress said. “They interest me more than anything, because I feel like there’s some sort of public duty of understanding those types of stories, because I think that they get pushed to the side of just, ‘Well, that’s a villain.’”
She said it wasn’t difficult to find inspiration for Elizabeth. Malone said that Renz and Bush gave her a “few names of women that exist today that live in the sort of alt-right world of whatever, and I just started watching some interviews and getting to know more of their ideology.” While she didn’t cite her inspirations by name, she admits that she “didn’t have to get too far with it.”
“I found that every one minute I watched or read about, it became an amplification, and I felt like I had watched something for 10 hours,” Malone said. “I didn’t do too much intense research, because oddly, you don’t really have to research that type of person to be aware of who they are, because me, as a 35-year-old cis white woman has been affected by that type of person my entire life.”
The filmmakers, Malone said, also outfitted her with nonfiction books about slave owners, but she boned up on her history by watching classic films about the era, including “Gone with the Wind.” “Antebellum” DP Pedro Luque Briozzo even shot portions of the film using lenses from Victor Fleming’s 1939 epic, itself recently the subject of controversy involving its depiction of slavery.
“Re-watching really old films — pre-sort of any giant social justice movement, but particularly since #MeToo — it’s very hard for me now,” Malone said. “It’s a completely different lens. So when I watched ‘Gone with the Wind,’ I couldn’t believe how racist and wildly sexist it was. It was a hard time.”
She continued, “I don’t think I fully finished it, but I did sit with it, because I was like, ‘I want to know about these sweeping shots that they’re talking about. It’s shot incredibly, there’s a lot of really beautiful things, there’s some really beautiful acting. I understand it was a feat for its time, but it doesn’t make it any less hard to watch, because of the championing of oppression that you’re witnessing.”
Malone said she also interrogated her personal experience and her own family’s history to further craft Elizabeth. For her it wasn’t just necessary for the role, but for the greater reckoning that is taking hold in Hollywood and beyond.
“If I’m not using my generational knowledge of oppression, to be able to paint this portrait, my personal experience with that, then I might have been hired for the wrong reason,” Malone said. “I felt like it was important to bring that sort of personal understanding of it, because this is what we should be doing now. I need to portray my grandparents, my grandmother, and my great-great grandmother. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, work that’s not going to feel very nice, but it’s really necessary to break the cycle of systemic oppression and also generational trauma.”
Jena Malone in “Antebellum”
A movie like “Antebellum,” she said, speaks to that need, and she hopes that audiences will be open to its messages. “What’s interesting is the Black experience has never changed; it’s just our white awareness which is shifting,” Malone said. “It’s really amazing to be presenting a film where white awareness is changing. The villain is a white supremacist. You’re openly cheering for harm to come to said white supremacist: It’s that type of popcorn movie.”
She expects that the film might be difficult for some white audiences, though not necessarily for the reasons most would expect upon hearing its plotline. Beyond its blunt messaging about the legacy of racism in Amerca, “Antebellum” offers another perspective on the Black experience that many white viewers might not be used to seeing on screen.
“This is a hard film to kind of watch for white people,” she said. “Not like in like a, ‘Oh, be fragile with me’ type of way, but I just don’t think that people are used to seeing these types of characters. And to be fair, we’ve never really been given the opportunity to see the fullness of Black experience, just what it is to be Black and thriving. … Janelle Monáe’s character is so beautiful, and we get to see her home life and her love life and work life balance, having a career and girlfriends and sexuality. There’s nothing that this character doesn’t get, which I think is really rare.”
The film was set for a pre-pandemic theatrical release before Lionsgate moved it to premium VOD. Malone isn’t worried that “Antebellum” won’t find an audience.
“The experience of seeing a film [in a theater] is so cool, but I just think that for me, the films that I’ve been most touched by were never the films that [I saw in a theater], they were always the ones that I found in a closet, or rented at Blockbuster, or just found somehow,” she said. “Nothing’s perfect, so I’m not too concerned. I feel like the shelf life of a film is eternal. It comes out, and people see it or not, but it lives on this golden shelf of filmmaking, and then anyone at anytime at any place can watch it.”
Malone admits that telling people “I’m playing a white supremacist” inevitably sparks a reaction, but she fixes on the power that can come from the film.
“People would be like, ‘Are you scared? Are you okay?’” she said. “That was kind of when I let the fear get into my throat a little bit, but now we are in this sort of amazing reckoning, this awakening, and there couldn’t be a better time for this film to come out. I’m not afraid at all.”
Lionsgate will release “Antebellum” on VOD on Friday, September 18.
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