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'Antebellum': A Movie That Uses Horror To Process America's Racial Problems

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Antebellum" is a horror movie that graphically depicts the experience of enslaved Black people on a Southern plantation. It stars Janelle Monae as a woman who is forced to pick cotton in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANTEBELLUM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You'll also be given instructions by one of the overseers as to your daily duties, which ought to be followed obediently and with a smile. Here, we whistle while we work.

SHAPIRO: The movie trailer also shows her character in the modern world as an accomplished author and public speaker with a husband and a daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANTEBELLUM")

JANELLE MONAE: (As Veronica) Guess what?

LONDON BOYCE: (As Kennedi) What?

MONAE: (As Veronica) Daddy is going to get you dressed for school today.

BOYCE: (As Kennedi) I know exactly what I want to wear.

MONAE: (As Veronica) You do?

SHAPIRO: The connection between those two identities is one of the main plot points in the film that we are not going to reveal in this conversation. "Antebellum" was written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who join us now. Welcome.

CHRISTOPHER RENZ: Hello.

GERARD BUSH: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: For a different conversation, this might not be relevant. But given the content of this movie, I feel like we need to note that, Gerard, you're Black, and, Christopher, you're white. So tell us about the conversation the two of you had that led to this idea.

BUSH: Well, this is Gerard. And not only am I Black. I'm super-Black.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: Christopher and I have been together as a couple and working in partnership for over a decade, and so some of these conversations as it relates to race have happened organically within our partnership. And when we first moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, my father had recently passed away. And after he passed, I was having a difficult time sort of processing it. And so I had this awful nightmare. And in the nightmare, I wasn't the star of the dream, which - normally, I'm the star of my own dreams. But it was this woman, Veronica, and she was so desperate to get out of this horrific circumstance in which she found herself. It felt that she was communicating cross-dimensionally. And I couldn't shake the nightmare after I awoke from it.

RENZ: I think we wrote the short story from that dream together the same day, which is what we used to adapt the screenplay from.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Did you talk with the folks on set about the idea of inherited trauma, this concept that the experiences of our ancestors are handed down to us and how we in the year 2020 process that?

BUSH: You know, the conversations that we had on the property - because it was an actual plantation.

SHAPIRO: Oh, really?

BUSH: Oh, yeah.

RENZ: The Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana.

BUSH: Yeah. Out of respect to the enslaved, we built replica cabins on the property. We did not use the actual cabins. And so, Ari, when we walked on that land, that hallowed ground, you could feel the history of the trauma. It felt like we were in an open-air holy place. And much of the time, cast and crew - we were really respectful. There wasn't a lot of yelling and screaming in the way that you normally would in trying to reach people on a set. The energy was calm.

And it was imperative to us that we were really respectful of the history and really respectful of the idea that we all carry around this trauma that we haven't necessarily, if at all, confronted. And maybe, just maybe, while we're on set, some of this is going to come to the surface. And so we created space where all of our actors felt safe and that we could have open conversations about what it is to be Black in America, what it is to be white in America and for us to have been sleepwalking through our lives, pretending that we had addressed these issues and healed when, in fact, our inability to confront them head-on has prevented us from being able to enter into a true and full healing.

SHAPIRO: For the two of you, as lifelong collaborators and partners, did it lead you into conversations that you hadn't had before?

RENZ: You know, I would say we've been doing this work for so long that Gerard and I are, you know, very much on the same page. And over the last ten years, you know, Gerard and I have had so many conversations around this. And what's interesting about the two of us is that we're able to go into rooms - obviously, as you said before, one of us is Black. One of us is white. And we can see in real time the differences in how people react to the same message. I can say something in the exact same way that Gerard says it, and the reaction is completely different.

And, you know, the one thing I will say is spending that much time in Louisiana, all of that was heightened. There's a - Louisiana is interesting. We love New Orleans. It's beautiful. The people are fantastic. But there is that layer right underneath the surface. And we kind of - we experienced that while on set.

SHAPIRO: Finally, let me ask you about the horror genre generally because it seems like from Jordan Peele's films to this - there are other examples I could name - horror is becoming a really rich way of processing America's racial trauma. And I wonder what you think this genre offers that others might not.

BUSH: C, do you want to answer, or do you want me to answer?

RENZ: You can answer, and then I'll add something.

BUSH: OK. I think that the reason that horror has served as such an effective vehicle for the telling of these stories is that it allows us to look at the Black experience from the perspective of Black people, which - that prism can be quite horrific. If I look at "Gone With The Wind," I totally find that movie to be a horror film. In fact, we were so obsessed with "Gone With The Wind" that we were determined to obtain the lenses that "Gone With The Wind" was shot on. And we used those lenses to shoot our movie...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

BUSH: ...So that we could take that same weaponry that was meant to misinform through propaganda and correct the record using that same weapon. And that is why, you know, some of those sweeping plantation - you know, the imagery seems eerily familiar.

RENZ: I would just add that, you know, yes, I don't know if this would be fully categorized as a traditional horror film. It has a lot of thriller elements. But we feel that horror is a great way in for general audiences who may not, you know, normally receive a message like this. So we kind of want to hide the medicine inside this - what seems to be a horror film so that you walk away a different person.

SHAPIRO: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are the writers and directors of the new movie "Antebellum." Thank you for talking with us about it.

RENZ: Thanks for having us.

BUSH: Oh, thank you, Ari, for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENIQUE DUMONT SONG, "SANS CESSE, MON CHERI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.