Antebellum is a terrifying new thriller from activist filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, two exciting new voices in contemporary cinema.
Writers /Producers/Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, were best known for creating advertising for brands like Harry Winston, Vogue, and Porsche before reorienting their careers toward disruptive, change-agent work for social justice, including the 2017 PSA “Against the Wall” as well as the shorts “Kill Jay-Z” (for his album “4:44”), “The Glass House”, and “17” for Tidal.
They trace the origins of Antebellum to a nightmare Bush had a few years ago, after he had experienced a series of personal losses.
“This nightmare was about a woman named Eden,” Bush recalls. “The experience was horrific and so real that I immediately wanted to talk about it with Chris. It felt like my ancestors had visited me to tell me the story. We thought it had the makings of an exciting short story and film.”
Another touchstone was William Faulkner’s well-known line, from Requiem for a Nun, which points to us being bound to our history while struggling to overcome it. The quotation opens the film and its meaning permeates every frame.
“First of all, we love Faulkner,” says Bush, “and that quote feels like life in America – that we don’t learn from the lessons of the past, and instead allow them to evolve and fester into a set of tactics that are repeated again and again. Antebellum is about that haunting of the present by the past.”
Renz adds that the Faulkner line “resonates on such a deep level and prepares audiences for what’s to follow. During production we were constantly reminded of the fact that racism remains alive and well. And since completing the film, we’ve seen the entire country experience a long-overdue reckoning, as if half the country has woken up to Faulkner’s idea of the past not even being past. If they’re now awake, we’d like our film to be the shot of adrenaline that gets them fired up and out of bed.”
“When we conceived Antebellum, we did not – could not – envision the way that systemic racism would break through to force the meaningful conversation we desperately need. But it has,” says Bush. “What we did intend was for the film to force the audience to look at the real-life horror of racism through the lens of film horror. We’re landing in the middle of the very conversations that we hoped Antebellum would spur. So to release the film in this environment is all we could ask for – as artists, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to add our voices in this cultural moment.”
Antebellum centers on Veronica (Janelle Monáe), a Ph.D. sociologist and bestselling author whose books explore the disenfranchisement of black people in the U.S., which has long been written into the country’s DNA. She’s devoted to her loving husband Nick and young daughter Kennedi, both of whom she must leave to travel to New Orleans, where she’s to speak at a talk. There, her empowering words remind the audience members that though Black people are often expected to be seen and not heard, their time is now. What Veronica doesn’t yet realize is that fate has chosen her to save us from our past – and to uncover a horrific secret that connects her to a Civil War era enslaved woman, Eden (also played by Monáe), toiling in a perfectly manicured cotton field amidst stifling, omnipresent heat, as the Civil War rages around her and others laboring under inhuman circumstances. Across time and different worlds and eras, Eden and Veronica find themselves enveloped in life-altering circumstances.
For eight-time GRAMMY®-nominated singer and actor Janelle Monáe, the decision to work with first-time directors was a canny one: an activist herself, Monáe chose a project that promised to work within the horror-thriller genre to deliver a challenging and thought-provoking movie that would not end for the audience when the credits rolled. “Christopher and Gerard’s script was a conversation starter around race, politics, what it means to be an American, and what the American Dream means today – all in a thriller unlike any I’ve seen before,” she says.
Monáe also points to the film’s more horrific moments. But instead of relating supernatural events, Antebellum spins a tale of real-life terrors. “The concept of silencing black people is pure horror,” she explains. “Chris and Gerard leaned into the framework of a psychological thriller to depict these horrors.”
Antebellum’s action, suspense, and themes center around Veronica. Renz and Bush envisioned the contemporary figure as, says the former, “representing her ancestors, who sacrificed so much for Veronica. Through that, she has developed a set of skills and experience that inform her work as a successful author and activist in the modern era.” Even the meaning of her name speaks to the character’s defining trait – “she who brings victory.”
Veronica’s connection to Eden is being kept under wraps, but Bush offers some tantalizing clues. “They both must unravel a life-changing mystery that requires a relentless determination to survive and emerge on the other side,” he reveals. “Veronica and Eden possess a similar set of tools, which are crucial to their survival and enable Eden to seek liberation from this horrific nightmare she shares with Veronica.”
The filmmakers approached Monáe to portray the two characters. “We’ve always been big fans of Janelle as an artist, and especially loved one of her first albums, Many Moons, as well as her work in the film Moonlight,” Renz states.
Bush continues, “Janelle has this otherworldly mythological presence in her face, soul, and spirit; it’s a quality unique to her. Chris and I were looking to cast someone who felt unexpected. We think the world Is going to take notice of Janelle’s incredibly riveting performance – and discover what we already knew about her.”
Monáe was moved to join the project by the chance to play Antebellum’s two extraordinary protagonists – Veronica and Eden. “When I read their script, it was, like, ‘Pow!’ – because it was full of twists. I love psychological thrillers that go in directions you’re not expecting. You think it’s one thing, but it turns out to be another.”
For Monáe, the film provided the opportunity to portray a woman not unlike the real-life figures she’s long admired. “I felt like I know, love and respect so many women who reminded me of Veronica – powerful, community-serving, strong-willed women who refuse to have their voices silenced as they represent those who are marginalized,” she shares. “I wanted to take on a character that could make us feel proud, especially in today’s climate. I think it’s important to honor women like that, through this film. There are heroes like that all over this country.”
Veronica is a trailblazing figure whose new book Shedding the Coping Persona points to how marginalized people throughout history have had to take on a certain persona in order to survive – “reducing or even eliminating their true selves, including their humanity, in order to be accepted within mainstream society,” says Bush.
“And it’s still happening in our world, today,” Renz emphasizes, “with people of color, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who’s still being marginalized.”
Veronica’s book is a roadmap to break this vicious cycle of inequity. But at the same time, it has drawn the attention of dark, nationalistic forces that will go to extraordinary and terrifying lengths to silence her powerful voice.
Going a step further, Monáe echoes the notion that Veronica “represents nothing less than a modern superhero, and we don’t see enough of those types of characters in our films.” She points to a big action scene where “Veronica really shines as she takes on the symbols of white supremacy and a toxic patriarchy. She’s trying to save herself and the people around her.”
Eden’s life of hardship, terror, and survival at any cost is defined by where she lives and toils, at a Civil War-era plantation. Bush and Renz immerse the audience in this picturesque hellscape via a breathtaking and startling five-minute “oner” – a single moving camera shot, which opens the film. “We wanted to grab the audience by the throat and not let go until the other side of the movie,” Bush explains. The camera captures a magnificent house sitting atop endless, perfectly manicured cotton fields, 100-year-old towering trees, assorted animals, a young girl playing, slaves working on laundry, a singed Confederate flag – and a freshly recaptured enslaved woman, Eden, hoisted over the backside of a horse being led by a Confederate soldier.
Balancing beauty and horror, the electrifying and intricate shot wasn’t without its share of logistical nightmares. “There were frustrations every day, even tears sometimes, and definitely tears of joy on the final day of shooting the scene,” says Renz. “Everyone gave their heart and soul to make it happen.”
Bush and Renz wanted a startlingly beautiful look for the film, providing a stark contrast to the unfolding terrors. “Beauty is the canvas to frame the story,” Bush explains. “We want audiences to consider the gorgeous colors of the Antebellum South in the midst of what’s happening to our characters.”
With principal photography completed, Bush and Renz began work on various
post-production duties. They brought aboard Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur to compose a chilling and haunting score. Both artists are best known for their collaborations with Monáe, through her Wondaland Arts Society, a record label, TV and film production company, and management firm. Antebellum is their motion picture debut.
Renz and Bush were thrilled with the result. “Nate and Roman took a chance on us and we took a chance on them,” says Bush, with Renz adding, “It was crucial to us that the score gives you something that feels hauntingly beautiful and leans into the horror of the experience. Their score feels and sounds like something the moviegoing audience has not experienced.”
Editor John Axelrad worked closely with Bush and Renz to shape the film. “We were really excited to ‘meet’ the movie during the editing process,” Renz remembers, with Bush interjecting, “We had scripted the film in great detail – we’re obsessive-compulsive with everything about Antebellum – but there were parts of the movie we discovered that we didn’t know existed, and which could be revealed only at the edit bay.”
With final preparations being made to ready the film for its PVOD release, some of the cast and filmmakers reflect on their hopes for the film.
Jack Huston notes, “From the beginning, Gerard and Chris said that this needs to be stunning. Every frame needs to be a painting. At the same time, the film is going to be shocking and terrifying for audiences. You want them to be overwhelmed, and I think Antebellum will do just that – overwhelm people.”
Monáe states that she hopes “audiences gain a deeper appreciation about what it means to be black, a woman, and a member of other marginalized groups. It’s a discussion that should be had amongst everyone. The film may also lead you to look at how abuses of power happen, and to think about our future and how we’re going to protect this next generation from
repeating the mistakes of the past. We don’t see that on screen as much as we should.”
The two artists whose vision for Antebellum was sparked by a nightmare, have the last word. “We made this film because we had not seen movies that dealt with slavery through the prism of horror,” Renz explains, as Bush adds, “Horror is not always science fiction or based on the supernatural; there’s plenty of horror in our history and present day, and that’s what we’d like audiences to experience.”
GERARD BUSH & CHRISTOPHER RENZ [Co-Writers Co-Directors]
Known as Bush +Renz , they are a writer/director duo driven by their passion for telling powerful stories of the dis-enfranchised, marginalized, and underrepresented. Their primary objective is to amplify the visibility of a host of social justice and cause-based issues currently impacting society –including climate change, LGBTQ equality, women’s equality, voter suppression, mass incarceration, et al. The duo has worked with The Bill + Melinda Gates Foundation, Amnesty International, Emily’s List, Priorities USA, and MLK Memorial Foundation, to name just a few.
Bush + Renz first captured the imagination of pop culture with their viral police brutality PSA Against The Wall, starring Michael B. Jordan, Danny Glover, and Michael K.
Williams, and the critically acclaimed visual E.P. 17 (loosely based on the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hand of a vigilante) for Jay-Z’s music entertainment platform Tidal. 17, which was produced by legendary activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte ––– went on to serve as the visual centerpiece for the 2017 Poor People’s Campaign initiative. Bush + Renz also wrote and directed the politically charged and highly acclaimed music short film, Kill Jay-Z, for the multi-Grammy nominated 4:44 project by superstar Jay-Z, as well as the short music film, The Glass House, produced in partnership with the social justice non-profit organization Sankofa – starring multi-Grammy award-winning R&B icon Maxwell and actress/activist Yomi Abiola.
Most recently, the pair were commissioned by Maxwell to create a visual meditation celebrating black beauty for his latest single, Shame, starring a host of the most in-demand black supermodels working in fashion today. Vogue Magazine called the piece, “A breathtaking, unapologetic celebration of black beauty.” Bush + Renz is also producing the documentary All Deliberate Speed on the re-segregation of the U.S. Public School System.
The hallmark of Bush + Renz’s work is an unbending commitment to breathtaking visuals, working seamlessly in concert with ultra-rich, original multi-textured narratives.
Always in service to the story – Bush + Renz’s unwavering attention to detail has them counted among a new generation of the most talked-about filmmakers to enter the stage.
Antebellum is their first full-length feature film.