In Antebellum, a thriller by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz about the horrors of racism in America, Janelle Monáe portrays two women living in different eras in what appear to be vastly different circumstances.
As the movie begins, the celebrated music star is Eden, an enslaved woman abused by a sadistic plantation owner in the pre-Civil War South.
Then, in Antebellum’s second act, Monáe is Veronica Henley, a successful modern-day Black feminist author and TED-talking cultural influencer with a loving husband and beautiful daughter.
The movie was originally scheduled to open in theaters in April but was pushed back due to the coronavirus and will now get a timely release in the midst of the racial reckoning it aims to address. It’s being released for on-demand viewing at home Sept. 18.
Monáe, who studied theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York after growing up in Kansas City, is well-established as a prestige projects actress.
She had feature roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures in 2016 and stars in the new season of the Amazon series Homecoming, which, like Antebellum, explores issues of memory and identity. Her Antebellum costars include Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, and Gabourey Sidibe.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Monáe said that when she read the script for the debut feature by self-identifying “activist directors” Bush and Renz, she was impressed by the job the story — which echoes Octavia Butler’s time-traveling novel Kindred — did “of connecting the dots of the past, present, and future.”
“I don’t think we can talk about police brutality or the prison-industrial complex or racial injustice or white supremacy without going back to the origin, which was chattel slavery,” says the singer-actress-activist. (Listen for her protest song “Turntables” in the new Liz Garbus documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, out Sept. 18 on Amazon, about Stacey Abrams and the crusade against voter suppression.)
“People forget and history books often whitewash this, but Black people were forced to be in America to work, and to work for free. They took people with purpose and passion ... real human beings who had a lot to offer this world who were robbed of that opportunity. And so my job, and what I felt like I had an opportunity to do, was to connect those dots and to tell the truth.”
From Porsche to purpose
Writer-directors Bush and Renz formed a partnership after working for competing Miami advertising agencies during the 2000s. They’d worked with clients like Porsche and Harry Winston until repping high-end luxury brands began to seem hollow.
“I said to Christopher, I don’t want to just sell champagne the rest of my life,” said Bush, who is Black, speaking along with Renz, who is white, from L.A. “I think we’re meant to do something so much bigger that’s going to have an impact on the world.”
After the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the duo created billboards in Florida that advertised faux bulletproof vests for children. It drew national attention.
A meeting with Harry Belafonte led to Against the Wall, a 2016 short film starring Michael B. Jordan and Danny Glover that addressed police brutality. That helped land a gig directing “Kill Jay-Z,” a video from the rapper’s 2017 4:44 album.
Eden’s story came to Bush in a nightmare. “I felt like this woman was screaming to me across dimensions,” he says. The partners first told the tale in a short story but were convinced it should be expanded into the feature film.
Antebellum opens with a quote from William Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The message of the movie, Bush says, “is that until we are courageous enough as a people, as a society, and as a country, to confront the ugliness of our past, the truth of it, as it concerns America’s original sin of slavery and the impact that has on the prospects for Black America up until this very day ... we’re going to be haunted.”
Horror as a prism
The horror genre that’s been deployed by Jordan Peele in recent movies about racism like Get Out and Us works similarly in Antebellum. “So white America can view the history of the Black experience through our prism," Bush says. "For me, Gone With the Wind is a horror film. For an old white lady in Georgia, Gone With the Wind is heaven on earth. So it all depends on the perspective.”
Renz says that “our only trepidation” about casting Monáe “was that she is such a pop star and so recognizable that we didn’t want ... the audience to not be able to get past that. But she’s so incredible in the roles, that didn’t turn out to be an issue.”
The duo became sold on Monáe watching her on the Grammy Awards telecast in 2018. In the audience, “she had this incredible stoic look on her face,” Renz recalls. “I don’t know what she was looking at, but there was so much there, happening behind her eyes.”
Monáe has another movie coming this month: Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, the Gloria Steinem biopic. She plays Ms. magazine cofounder Dorothy Pitman Hughes.
It might seem as if she’s chosen acting over making music in 2020, but that’s not the case, she says.
“I’m big on the law of attraction,” she says. “And I feel like when the timing is right, opportunities present themselves. I couldn’t have written down that I was going to be involved in movies that highlight marginalized voices and that center people that haven’t often been portrayed on screen with the nuances of a human being.”
On the contrary, her career choices are “very organic.”
“I kind of go where my soul clap tells me to go. I don’t feel like I’m an artist that is about doing the next job or the next gig to keep money in my pocket. I’ve been broke before and said no. I’ve had that mentality if it’s not something that’s going to make a dent in culture or push conversations forward or challenge me, or make me feel ...”
Here, Monáe searches for the right word.
" ... Terrified! Almost terrified, about taking these risks and going on this journey as an actor. In Antebellum in particular, I knew that for me to get into this role I really did have to call on my ancestors and I really did have to meditate. I felt them guiding me every step of the way.
"I mean, I think this film will trigger some folks, in the same way that every day we’re having to do a hashtag for Breonna Taylor, or when we’re speaking out about racial injustice or those we have lost to police violence.
“We have to make a decision: OK, are we going to post this content? Are we going to show exactly what happened to George Floyd? With this film, I knew it was going to be difficult for me, because you can only take so much. But how do you tell the truth without showing the truth?”