NEW YORK (AP) – In March, filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz gathered their artist friends and a few journalists at Manhattan’s social club, Soho House, to screen their first full-length project, ‘Antebellum.’
They wanted a constructively critical response ahead of the film’s planned spring release – a psychological thriller about a black woman trapped in a pre-abolition past. Bush, who is black, and Renz, who is white, hoped the project would contribute to a national settlement of the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the US
“To see how they were really touched by the film, some even to tears, we first realized the potential impact ‘Antebellum’ will have on society and the long delayed conversations that must be held about the race in America, ”said the filmmakers, who wrote, directed and produced the project.
Subsequently, the coronavirus pandemic exploded internationally.
Once the virus had seized the economy, forcing cinemas to shut down and almost pushing Hollywood movie studios to save elaborate release plans, Bush and Renz pulled their movie. They said they didn’t want what was meant to be relegated to a streaming theatrical film to a streaming platform, as several film studios did last spring.
Patience may have proved a virtue for Bush and Renz.
With many cinemas reopening in the coming weeks, “Antebellum,” to be released by Lionsgate on August 21, will debut at the height of a settlement in America as people become more and more hungry for works that lead the way to racial justice. Driven in part by nationwide protests over the recent deaths of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, it is a moment that positions “Antebellum” as the only summer release that speaks to the moment as well as to the wider movement to defend black lives from deep-seated , systemic racism.
“We have always believed that 2020 would usher in a whole new era that would require a new way of filming. “We had no idea how far-sighted that would turn out to be,” Bush and Renz told The Associated Press in a series of interviews and emails since the screening in March.
‘Antebellum’, starring singer and actress Janelle Monáe, seizes the legacy of American slavery from the past and squares it into the present – in a politically divided country where Southern nostalgia and white supremacist violence destroy black life. The film follows successful Black book author Veronica Henley, played by Monáe, on a quest to destroy the remnants of that legacy.
If that looks creepy on today’s America, it’s a coincidence, Bush and Renz said. In the past month, protests provoked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis officer held a knee around his neck, have given way to the removal of Southern landmarks, building name changes in public and private schools and the shedding of racist caricatures from food packaging.
Everyday Americans, black and non-black, are out on the streets demanding seismic policy shifts in the police and criminal justice systems. It is a result of the fact that I never took America’s original sin into account, Bush said.
“We plan to wake people up to the daydream of a superhero coming to our rescue,” he said. “Only we, so humanity, can save ourselves.”
Monáe played a supporting role in last year’s ‘Harriet’, a biopic about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and she received critical acclaim for her role in the Academy Award-winning film ‘Moonlight’. In ‘Antebellum’, Monáe gives moviegoers a modern black heroine who takes charge of her own liberation without a male-dominated cavalry.
“I knew it was something I had to do, not just for myself, but for my ancestors and all the many black women I considered modern superheroes,” Monáe told the AP.
“I hope that (the film) ensures that privileged people in this country have conversations among themselves, because the topics in this film … are not for black people to try to solve,” she added.
Monáe had never worked with Bush and Renz prior to ‘Antebellum’, and only got to know them for their work on visuals accompanying the hip-hop tycoon Jay-Z’s 4:44 album in 2017. The duo started over a decade ago as heads of a creative marketing and advertising agency serving clients of luxury brands such as Moët, Harry Winston and Porsche.
After the 2012 murder of Travyon Martin, the filmmakers wondered if they would “sell champagne for the next 20 or 30 years,” Renz said.
That period of self-reflection led to partnerships with social justice organizations such as Harry Belafonte’s Sankofa.org. In 2016, Bush and Renz directed “Against The Wall,” a star-studded video campaign to draw attention to racial profiling in law enforcement with actors Michael B. Jordan, who starred in the 2013 police violence drama “Fruitvale Station” and Michael. K. Williams, from HBO’s “The Wire,” as well as activist and CNN commentator Van Jones.
The video shows black men and women taking the position, as if they were apprehended and searched by the police, while the dispatcher shots of real agents describe suspects in racially discriminatory terms. It also included a recording of George Zimmerman’s voice from the day he called police to report Trayvon Martin as a suspected burglar before shooting and killing the Florida teenager.
That project was followed by others with music releases from artists such as Ty Dolla $ ign, Raphael Saadiq and Mali Music on Jay-Z’s TIDAL streaming service. Their path to feature films with a racial justice message is long on the way, Bush and Renz said.
Sometimes, ‘Antebellum’ uses graphically violent depictions of the inhuman treatment of enslaved people, which in recent films has met with disapproval from some critics and black moviegoers who were tired of unimaginative Hollywood slavery films.
Bush and Renz said they want the public to be able to trust that they have done something completely different.
“Some of today’s culture is caused by art, while that is exactly what art should do. We would much rather see you activated in a theater and activated to take meaningful, positive action – than all of us living in an open-air shooting range every time we leave our homes, ”Bush said.
Even as they anticipate box office success with “Antebellum,” Bush and Renz are already working on their second long script, under a newly formed production company, Gloaming Pictures.
“The call for an artistic revolution has not been so urgent since the 1960s,” said Bush. “The work has only just begun.”
Morrison attended an early screening of the film in March and is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
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