The directors of mind-bending horror-thriller Antebellum don’t mind you knowing one big spoiler in advance: Brutal white racists see their comeuppance by the closing credits. It’s a satisfying tonic in Trump-era America when all bets for racial justice are off.
The debut feature from boyfriends and creative partners of 12 years Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum sees Janelle Monáe portray two distinct characters from separate time periods. Her present-day alter ego is Veronica, a sociologist and best-selling author visiting New Orleans for a speaking engagement, and her historical counterpart is Eden, a tormented slave on an 1800s Southern plantation who is brutalized by its sadistic owner, known only as “him” (Eric Lange), plantation overseer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), and Jasper’s wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone). What connects these two Black women and their respective timelines is the horrific mystery at the heart of Antebellum. The film also co-stars Kiersey Clemons as Julia, a fellow slave recently acquired by the plantation’s owners; a scenery-chewing Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn, a sassy friend of Veronica’s; and Robert Aramayo as Daniel, a Confederate soldier with a secret.
The project was first conceived a few years back after Bush, a Black man himself, experienced a vivid nightmare about a terrified woman named Eden who desperately reached out to him through time and dimensions for help. Inspired, Bush and Renz—who started their careers in advertising and later moved into the social justice space with a 2016 PSA on police brutality, “Against The Wall,” and visual E.P. based on the Trayvon Martin murder, 17—wrote a short story and, later, Antebellum’s feature screenplay.
The pair chatted with NewNowNext about the movie, the growing wave of horror projects by and about POC, and their experience working with openly queer talents Monáe and Clemons.
How would you describe this movie without spoilers?
Gerard Bush: The movie is about about a beautiful, young, successful Black woman, a mother, a wife, a pillar of society and thought leader, plucked from her life and deposited in an open-air haunted house of the Antebellum South who has to figure out the mystery of what this is before it’s too late.
I was hoping that Antebellum, like Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds, would also bring us satisfying revenge against hateful, cruel racists, because I need to see that right now. And it did! Are you okay with audiences knowing that in advance?
Bush: Yes, but we also hope they recognize that what some might view as revenge we see as justice, because Black people in America can’t really rely on the authorities or the government to provide the justice that we so deserve.
Unlike other slavery-era films like 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained, viewers don’t hear the N-word being thrown around. Can you discuss that decision?
Bush: The N-word is never used in Antebellum by a single white person because that [would be] an easy-off ramp for the audience to say, ‘oh that’s not me.’ Even though it’s no longer socially acceptable in civilized society to use that word today—maybe on Reddit, but not in public—it’s still acceptable in many ways to shoot Black people in cold blood and not spend one day in jail. It’s the pantomime of good behavior, but the brutality is not decreased one iota in today’s America.
Gerard, what more can you tell me about the nightmare that inspired the film?
Bush: It happened about eight months after my father passed away. I was having a really difficult time processing his passing, trying to get my mother reset in her new life without him, and also having to confront my own finite time on earth. When I had the nightmare, Eden, this woman, was desperately trying to reach for help across dimensions, so it felt ancestral and I was really invested in what was happening to her. She would refer to her tormentor as “him,” and we would only see him in shadow and silhouette, and she was having problems piecing together where she was and she would call it ‘the before.’ It was a very strange experience, and I wrote all the details in my notepad. The next day, Christopher and I had the conversation about it. That’s when we wrote the short story, and that became the foundation of the script.
One might get the impression from the trailer that the film might be inspired by a book called Kindred as well.
Christopher Renz: The trailer can give you that feeling, but the trailer itself is a bit of a misdirect.
Bush: The movie has nothing to do with Kindred. It’s a completely original story. But we don’t want to spoil anything.
We’re seeing some great horror films and series lately by and about Black people, including Get Out, HBO’s Lovecraft Country, and the upcoming Candyman sequel, which also touch on the state of race relations past and present. Do you consider Antebellum part of this wave?
Bush: The difference is all those movies deal with the supernatural and science fiction. We play with perspectives and shifting paradigms, so we have our own lane. But I get that, because we’re dealing with Black stories and the history of Black oppression in America, yet ours isn’t tethered to sci-fi or pulp fiction. It’s grounded in something horrifically real.
Was it important to you to have LGBTQ talents like Janelle and Kiersey in the film?
Bush: Absolutely. We think it’s important there is visibility. When I was a kid I didn’t imagine or see ‘happily ever after,’ because I never saw an example of it. So for Christopher and I as artists, we’re going to continue to champion having people from the LGBT and Black and brown communities—from all these groups we belong to—represent modern America both in front of and behind the camera.
Although there isn’t an out and proud character in the movie, did you incorporate queerness into one of their backstories?
Renz: Yes. The scene between Kiersey and Robert Aramayo, who plays the Confederate soldier sent to have sex with her in a cabin, his backstory is he’s questioning and unsure but wants to feel a part of something.
Bush: We wrote him as a closeted young man confused about his sexuality, and he was only 70% rotten at heart. Where Julia went wrong was questioning his sexuality. Saying, “You’re not like the others.” That’s what sent him into an absolute tailspin.
Did you worry about triggering audiences with violent scenes during a time when we’re seeing new videos almost every day of Black people being brutalized or killed by white people?
Bush: No. At the end of the day, we’re artists and our responsibility is to activate and trigger. I would prefer you be triggered in the safety of your home or a theater than continue to lie to each other and live in an open-air shooting gallery. I don’t think we should police art. I respect those who can’t access the art, because they’re not comfortable. If they’re not and can’t go there, I respect that. However they shouldn’t prevent us from being true to the story that we need to tell.
Was anything hard for Janelle (pictured above) to tap into?
Bush: You would have to ask her. But I can tell you that Janelle was committed to honoring the ancestors.
Is there a silver lining to the change in release due to the pandemic? How do you feel about the shift in date and to VOD?
Bush: I feel it was ordained for the movie to take on its own life and journey and reveal and rebirth itself to the world in its own time. We didn’t know when the final date was picked, of September 18, that it happened to fall on the anniversary of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, so it feels like perfect timing. And Lionsgate is treating it like an event the same way they would a theatrical release.
In researching the film, did you learn anything about the experience of LGBTQ slaves?
Bush: No, we didn’t. To be honest, I didn’t even consider what they would have done and how they would have hidden themselves. I couldn’t even imagine that. That’s another film!
Renz: That’s a fantastic question. I love a question like that. Now I’m excited to research that.
Bush: Someone else should do that movie!
Main image: Janelle Monáe.
Antebellum is out Friday, September 18 on VOD.