The frightening thriller Antebellum from Lionsgate and QC Entertainment — the producer of Get Out and Us — was fittingly inspired by a bad dream.
Filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz trace the origins of the film to a nightmare Bush had. “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.”
Through Eden (Janelle Monáe), Antebellum — which became available through premium VOD Sept. 18 — explores a nightmare from which America seems unable to awake: the country’s original sin of slavery.
The story centers on Veronica (also played by Monáe), a Ph.D. sociologist and best-selling author whose books explore the disenfranchisement of Black people in the United States. Veronica travels to New Orleans for a speaking engagement and uncovers a horrific secret that connects her to the enslaved Eden.
“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,” Monáe says. “I wanted to take on a character that could make us feel proud, especially in today’s climate.”
As a speaker and writer, Veronica’s voice takes on a symbolic power.
“The concept of silencing Black people is pure horror,” Monáe explains. “Chris and Gerard leaned into the framework of a psychological thriller to depict these horrors.”
As in any horror tale, there are villains on the plantation where Eden is enslaved — played by Jack Huston, Eric Lange and Jena Malone (“Hunger Games” franchise).
“The way that Chris and Gerard move between these two worlds is not only clever, but necessary to tell the story,” Malone says. “They pull the rug out from under you so you can view these really intense things in a new way.”
A world away from Eden’s plantation life, and before embarking upon her own harrowing journey, Veronica meets up with two friends, Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles), for a night on the town in New Orleans. Sidibe (Academy Award nominee, Precious) describes Dawn as “affluent and filled with black girl magic.” Her character lends a levity to the proceedings, but the frivolity of the trio’s night out is interrupted by moments of tension that create an ominous mood.
“There’s a repeated micro-aggression that’s aimed at Veronica and Dawn — the two women of color — that Sarah is aware of but perhaps doesn’t completely understand,” Cowles says.
Throughout the production is the ominous feeling that history is encroaching on the present — made all the more potent by the fact that scenes were filmed on a real plantation, the Evergreen Plantation, located on the Mississippi River, about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans.
“We actually wanted and had committed to finding and identifying a real plantation, and honoring the ancestors,” Renz points out. “As soon as we arrived at Evergreen for a location scout, we knew we had to film there. The ghosts of enslaved people are stained on the trees and on the blades of grass. It’s in the air and soaked into the wood of those cabins. You can feel that energy; it’s palpable.”
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” reads the William Faulkner quote that begins the film.
While Antebellum was meant to be a mind-bending mystery that unfolds as a metaphor for the current climate of racism, the filmmakers did not anticipate how the sins of the past would jump to the fore again in the current political climate.
“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.”