Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz were only in Los Angeles for a short time when they suddenly found themselves at the center of a bidding war over their ambitious first film, Antebellum. It really surprised us, Bush recalled. We found ourselves in the tornado of studios chasing us and the script.
And to think of it, the horror flick by a pair best known for social justice videos like the one about police brutality, Against the wall, starring Michael B. Jordan came from a nightmare that Bush had. In it, a black woman named Eden was crying out for help in a way he described as multidimensional. She called her executioner only like Him.
When I got out of it, I was really upset and wished I could have joined or returned to her, Bush said.
Almost two years after he and Renz wrote a short story about it, Bushs dream has now turned into a movie with Janelle Mone, the singer-actress making her own debut as a prominent woman. In Antebellum, she plays Eden, a slave who fights for her freedom in America before the Civil War. The film swings to and from the present with Mone juggling a dual role as Veronica, a bestselling author, wife and mother facing the systemic racism that persists in the modern world. Then the lives of Veronica and Eden collide strangely.
Like Bush and Renz, Mone is a longtime activist, and her work, including performances in the dramas Hidden Figures and Moonlight, often tackle systemic oppression. So she felt compelled to take on the difficult roles in Antebellum to help draw more attention to the historical atrocities that continue to resonate. There is no way to talk about the racial injustices being suffered right now without looking back to the past, Mone said.
As timely as its themes are, especially in this era of Black Lives Matter, some critics have been less than enthusiastic about Antebellum, which opens Sept. streaming and on-demand platforms. Polygon Easily called it the worst movie of the 2020s to date, citing its unnecessary brutality and misguided twist. The Hollywood Reporter said he was more interested in making a Big Point than in significantly digging his topic. And Indiewire described it as spliced in a way that goes against its message.
Mone, Bush, and Renz spoke to me via Zoom from Los Angeles about confrontations with the past, racial assimilation, and the Antebellum. For us, it’s really important that any art we bring out to the world advances the urgent conversations that need to be conducted around a whole host of issues, not the least of which is race in America, Bush said. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Considering the moment, do you think people are finally ready to face the past?
GERARD BUSH I think people were in a lull during the Obama years thinking America had made huge strides in race. That’s not to say we haven’t, but we continue to back down because of our reluctance to face the truth. We have spent an enormous amount of time in this country free from white fragility, and we must treat the privileged class white population as adults capable of confronting the truth of the past, instead of creating these lies about what the foundation of the Americas was based. This distortion of history that makes them feel superior is a mistake.
Janelle, because the film has such a gigantic scope and it’s your first leading role in a feature film, are you having any concerns about being a part of it?
JANELLE MONE Well, I was blown away by the script. I found myself sitting in a tub reading from start to finish, fingers and toes crumpled. I think this movie did such an important job of reminding us that the past is not the past. Having the opportunity to center black women, who carry the burden of deconstructing systemic racism and white supremacy every day, was something I felt we hadn’t seen on screen. Being African American and watching the protests and how we present ourselves for everyone and not getting the love and peace that we deserve is something I wanted to stress.
Antebellum also points out that success like Veronicas does not protect black people from racial trauma. As a very successful black woman, what does her book, Shedding the Coping Persona mean to you?
MONEY In the film, she says, Liberation on Assimilation and she uses the quote from Assata Shakur: We have nothing to lose except our chains. I think Veronica is in a space where her job isn’t to tilt or assimilate into institutions that weren’t built with us in mind. I’m in a place where I’m not interested in integrating into systems that I never thought of when they were building them. I’m more interested, and I think Veronica is more interested, in burning these systems down and starting over, coming to the table and saying, Here’s what we need.
The end of the film reveals a major twist that debunks what we think happens in the story. What did you ultimately want Veronica to achieve?
BUSH We want people to understand that this is not revenge that Veronica was looking for; it was justice. Often in America we black people are unable to obtain justice from the authorities or the government. And when we do, it’s misinterpreted as revenge. She needed to correct the record, the abuse, both for herself and for her ancestry. She’s on that horse swinging that ax, bloody, and she really went through that. But it also means that she failed to come out of this situation unscathed. It has been our entire existence in America.
And by going through this experience, she can move forward in her own life?
BUSH She needs to come back to her daughter and her husband, but the only way for her to heal herself is to confront herself head-on and achieve this justice. It is the only way.
Janelle, as a black woman who viscerally recognizes this ancestral bond, what was it like for you to immerse yourself in the surroundings of Eden?
MONEY When I entered this plantation, it was difficult. I felt a lot of rage, a lot of hatred in my heart for all those who robbed our people and forced them to come to America to work. I want whites to not just talk about why they are shouting that Black Lives Matter, as if blacks are objects and not subjects to be studied until the end of time. To even say that is dehumanizing. This is nothing new to me, nor to Gerard and Chris and others who are constantly researching and having to relive the nightmare of seeing how white supremacy has killed so many of us.
CHRISTOPHER RENZ In the American school system, black history begins with slavery and there is nothing before it. So it was important for us, through Veronica, to provide this modern context of that before.
BUSH That this woman was a mother, a wife, that she fought for the community, that she
RENZ Shown fully in his power and
BUSH Had full power over herself and her life. We don’t know the past.
The film suggests that the forward is what makes Veronicas very existence, her success, so superheroic.
MONEY I think this movie does a great job of humanizing Veronica. It is not all heavy. There are so many beautiful moments of joy. I was really happy to work with black women, especially Gabourey Sidibe, who was such a light as Veronica’s best friend. You see these two letting each other loose, cheering on each other, drinking wine, laughing, talking about intellectual things, and about the work it takes to be a great mother and wife. These are conversations black women have with each other all the time. I love to see that she felt safe [with] a black woman.
It’s a welcome reprieve from a film that also sheds light on a deeply traumatic time, especially for black audiences.
BUSH For me, it’s really uncomfortable to see people who look like me in bondage. But what I have come to understand is that it is prejudicial to us when we participate in the erasure of the truth because of our uneasiness in facing it. I watch our wonderful Jewish community and how they are vigilant in protecting the truth and ensuring that the horrors of the Holocaust are examined and reconsidered. We are doing ourselves a disservice in our reluctance to explore these stories. The past will continue to haunt our present and steal our collective future if we do not face it.
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