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America’s racist past continues to haunt the present in ‘ANTEBELLUM’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
America’s racist past continues to haunt the present in ‘ANTEBELLUM’
Janelle Monáe stars as Veronica Henley in “Antebellum.” PHOTO: Matt Kennedy

What began for filmmaker Gerard Bush as a nightmare in 2017 of “a woman who was so desperate for help that she was screaming across dimensions” quickly morphed into a short story, which later evolved into a movie script, and now into the soon-to-be released thriller “Antebellum.”

Co-writers/directors Christopher Renz (left) and Gerard Bush on the set of “Antebellum.” PHOTO: Kyle B. Kaplan

Co-writers/directors Christopher Renz (left) and Gerard Bush on the set of “Antebellum.” PHOTO: Kyle B. Kaplan

The first full-length feature film from Bush and Christopher Renz stars singer and actor Janelle Monáe (“Harriet,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight”), who portrays Veronica Henley, a successful author, speaker, wife and mother who finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the past, present and future – before it’s too late.

Originally scheduled for a theatrical release in April, the film was pushed back due to Covid-19 and debuts on Sept. 18 for on-demand viewing from Lionsgate and QC Entertainment, the producer behind the films “Get Out” and “Us.”

The twisty and mind-bending mystery turns the horror genre upside down as a metaphor for the current climate of racism. The first 10 seconds of the film romanticize the Antebellum South, à la “Gone with the Wind.” Then, as the camera pans across the beautiful landscape, the film quickly shows the truth, the ugliness and horror unfolding from behind the main house.

When asked why the horror genre lends itself to addressing racism, Bush says, “We are making a bold step in trying to reimagine what horror can mean in 2020. What we’re saying is there’s no need for fictitious or fantasy monsters when we can mine the current moment and the past for plenty of options that live among us right now.”

Both directors, who spoke to the Banner from Los Angeles, are deeply concerned about the times they find themselves living in and very conscious of having their art reflect these times.

Bush says he sees “Gone with the Wind” as a horror film because of the casual disregard for Black people, how they were made to look clownish and depicted as “the happy slave” — “happy to work, happy to be in bondage, tortured and raped.” It was important to the L.A.-based directors to turn the 1939 film upside down and view it “through the prism of horror.”

The writer/director duo came to filmmaking by way of a successful career in fashion and luxury advertising, directing national campaigns for Harry Winston, Vogue and Porsche. Despite their success, Bush felt adrift about losing the original principle of why he and Renz were engaging in this work. “It was never to sell champagne,” says Bush. “We wanted to tell stories that could activate people.”

An opportunity to shift their art into activism began with the election of President Barack Obama. They knew there would be a backlash to America’s first Black president and that the “Reconstruction” period would be far worse, according to Bush. When Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida in 2012, it sent them into a tailspin. They created a billboard image of a beautiful Black boy wearing a back-to-school bulletproof vest. The billboards were placed all over Florida, in conservative areas and in the capital, Tallahassee. The image struck a chord, went viral and was picked up by CNN.

The advocacy filmmakers embraced another opportunity when they were approached by Harry Belafonte while in Los Angeles. He said to them, “I’ve got $5,000 all in to shoot and travel for a campaign.” Of that serendipitous moment, Bush says, “You don’t say ‘no’ to Mr. B.” They ended up creating the 2017 PSA “Against the Wall,” which addressed the issues of police brutality and racial profiling. The short film featured actors Michael B. Jordan, Danny Glover, Michael K. Williams, and CNN’s Van Jones, for Belafonte’s social justice organization Sankofa.

When “Antebellum” releases on Friday, Bush and Renz hope that audiences will heed some of the truths, even the uncomfortable and ugly ones from the film.

“The country was built on the backs of sold bodies and free labor. That’s the truth,” says Bush. “And we’ve been exhausting ourselves, particularly Black people, and performing a lie so that we’ll stop being killed, so that we can have a job, and we can feed our families. As soon as we stop performing and as soon as we decide to take a knee, well, we’re reminded. We’re hoping that the film continues a national dialogue that moves us from conversation into real action.”

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