They walked into the Harkins Northfield multiplex tentatively. It was the first time that most of the attendees for last week’s preview of “Antebellum” had been in a movie theater since the start of the coronavirus-induced arts collapse of 2020.
The neo-horror film had been pushed from a late April theatrical release to a September on-demand run (it’s available on various streaming platforms, starting Sept. 18.) With their unsettling debut, writers-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz take on slavery, the toxicity of racism, and the persistence of what’s come to be called “microaggression” while often delivering a vivid ride. (Thanks to Gabourey Sidibe, there are even moments of exquisite fun.)
The evening preview was hosted by Denver’s Color of Conversation Film Festival (Oct. 8-10), as part of the occasional one-off social justice screenings that the festival’s been hosting since its launch in 2019.
In a less locked-down world, the filmmakers would have seen their debut feature get a coveted big-screen berth. Distributor Lionsgate was marketing the movie heavily before the pandemic.
“We’re just thankful that people get to see it safely in their homes and have that experience,” said Bush, sitting in a director’s chair, his face mask beneath his chin. He knows complaining about disappointment would be churlish during the ongoing health and economic crisis.
The duo has had a business together, as well as a romantic partnership, for more than a decade. While tag-teaming the interview, they offer an intriguing portrait of different yet complementary energies. But don’t imagine two writers across a table furiously tapping out dialog on their laptops and riffing on scenes.
“It’s interesting because we both require complete solitude individually,” says Bush of their writing process. “We’re really not at the same table together working on the script until we tweak a full script,” Renz added.
He recalls how quickly their creative alliance took hold. “Maybe the third time after meeting, Gerard talked to me about some idea he had, and I was ‘Let’s go write it up. Let’s go write it up right now!’ ” Their first story was about aliens. They wrote the short story that “Antebellum” is based on in the fall of 2017. The first draft of the script was out to market by the end of February 2018.
In the film, actress Janelle Monáe shoulders dual roles, one as an enslaved woman named Eden. (“Named,” in the context of the plantation she plots to escape, takes on a particularly heated meaning.) She also portrays super-star sociologist, wife and mom Veronica, who reunites with two friends for a dinner after a successful conference appearance in New Orleans.
Veronica/Eden’s terrifying sojourn was inspired by a nightmare Bush had. It’s something the movie has stayed true to, he says. “It was vivid. And it was traumatizing. It was as traumatizing for me as I imagine it is for people who experience the movie now. I came out of it on the other side shaken.”
“Antebellum” is not without challenges — it has already divided critics — but how these two women intersect is painful and canny.
It’s a shame that “Antebellum” won’t get its due on bigger screens. There are subtle cues far easier to glean in the larger format, nuances that hint at the ambitions and talents of the pair. One prompt that can’t be missed, however, is a quote from Mississippian William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” at the movie’s onset: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
“It’s an Easter Egg before the film even begins,” Renz says. It is, indeed. One of the film’s characters will restate Faulkner’s insight (mostly as wisecrack). But the filmmakers have hard-wired the very notion of “a past that is not” into their film in ways that are both inventive and provocative.
“The quote feels like the mantra to America. It feels like we’re in a place — and we’ve always been in a place — that takes a great push forward and a greater slide back, a great push forward and even a greater slide back,” says Bush. “And that was really fascinating to us. We live it every day as Americans. I think we’ve been intoxicated by the distractions of technology and entertainment. We don’t even realize we’re a broken record. More than that, a record that is skipping. That’s why we thought the quote was perfect.”
In having Veronica and Eden occupy different spaces, “Antebellum” deftly reframes the relationship of racially underpinned “microaggressions” and the outrages of chattel slavery. As assured as she is, Veronica isn’t immune to a hotel clerk’s condescension, for instance.
“For me, those microaggressions were really important to highlight,” Bush says. “In conversations that Christopher and I would have about how we can expose the truth to a broader audience that might not have an awareness of it, it was important to give voice and scene and picture to the daily insult that so many of us Black people — people of color — endure. I also think it was important for Black people to see these microaggressions and realize that they had become not psychologically immune, but deaf to the experience. And that is important to correct. Because it is a vestige, an artifact, of this country’s original sin. It’s like a toxic waste. It still permeates, it’s still in our skin.”
What isn’t in the least “micro” is how the film opens. “Antebellum” wastes no time establishing its at times cinematic bravado but also its brutality. Fans of the filmmakers’ video production company won’t be surprised by the former. Bush + Renz has made elegant, eloquent videos for Jay-Z and singer-songwriter Maxwell as well as powerful PSAs and short films for Amnesty International and for Harry Belafonte and daughter Gina’s social justice organization, Sankofa.
But the movie’s opening moments evoke memories of two Oscar winners: “Gone With the Wind” and “12 Years a Slave.” The former not merely for the sweeping shot of a white, pillared veranda; the latter, not merely because the scenes plunge us into slavery’s violent claims on black bodies. Together they capture the Kafkaesque mind-warping that accompanies slavery’s existential affront. Critics can, and have, rightly questioned the ethical merits of continuing to highlight the violence.
The pair are aware they are treading fraught terrain. “We had a lot of conversations about (the opening),” Renz says. “I think the fact that no one would ever think to throw a wedding at Auschwitz, yet they think it’s perfectly fine to do so at a plantation means that much of the population of America has not received the message and does not understand it. We wanted to make sure we weren’t being complicit in that revisionist history.”
“What we were not going to do was serve as co-conspirators in the erasure of the actual history of this country” adds Bush. “We’re already dealing with that. And I understand about trauma, I understand what that means for the Black community, for us as a people. But look at our beautiful Jewish community and how they are incredibly vigilant in the art. ‘This happened. Look at it. It’s difficult to look at but look at it.’ Let it be a reminder of how far down we can go, of how history can easily repeat itself. We need to engage in conversations about how a collective psychopathy can metastasize so quickly before you even know it.”
Since Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” smartly teased the horror of racism, there’s been a fine upsurge of Black filmmakers and their collaborators bending the horror genre (fantasy/sci-fi, too) to culture-critiquing effect. (Consider “Lovecraft Country” and “Watchmen” on HBO, as well as “Underground Railroad,” set for Amazon, part of the revitalization.) “If you look up the definition of the word ‘horror,’ It is something that gives you fright, scares you and is disgusting. There’s nothing more horrific that slavery.” says Bush.
It makes savvy sense that Color of Conversation founders Stephanie and Floyd Rance reached out to local influencers for the “Antebellum” preview — making the screening part of its social-justice one-offs. Among the masked and physically distant audience members there to see the movie and stay for a Q&A were State Rep. Leslie Herod; Women’s Foundation president and CEO Lauren Casteel; Cleo Parker Robinson Dance executive director Malik Robinson; and Black Chamber of Commerce head Lee Gash-Maxey.
A day later, the event’s hosts received an email from a white attendee. “I don’t even really know how to thank you for last night,” it began. “It was profound. The movie was amazing. I am definitely going to watch it again given all that I learned during Q&A. I’m also planning to email our entire company recommending this film and an opportunity to think about the relationship between our history and our present — not to mention all the examples of microaggressions, etc., in the film. What a rich and meaningful night. …”
“For me, that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Stephanie Rance about the goals they’ve set for their still-young Denver-based Color of Conversation fest. (The pair co-founded the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, now in its second decade). “People here in Denver are open to the conversations in a meaningful way. Every time we do a screening about race, I’m always surprised by the number of non-people-of-color in the room. I know no race of people is monolithic, but it’s amazing to me the level of openness and willingness to learn, to listen and to ask really important and engaging questions.”
The filmmakers — who were headed to Washington, D.C., after their stop in Denver — are likely to be back someday. During spring’s lockdown, when they should have been embarking on their first publicity tour, the two were hunkered in Los Angeles, where they live. “If there was any silver lining for us personally … with the quarantine, it’s that we wrote our next movie (“Rapture”) and sold it,” says Bush with a smile. ” And then we wrote a television show.”
“At least we could write, and that made us feel grounded.”
All the better to rattle the ground on which we all stand, perhaps.
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