Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, directors of the new psychological horror film Antebellum, weren’t originally planning on casting Janelle Monáe in the starring role. But the lightbulb moment to bring her onto the project came about in a pretty unusual way.
“We saw her in an award show audience; I want to say it was the Grammys in 2018,” Bush recalls. “She was looking up at someone onstage, and she had this incredibly stoic but beautiful expression. But under that stoicism was a furnace that was burning so bright that it couldn’t help but reach the surface. That was when we looked at each other and said, ‘That’s our Veronica.'”
In the film, Monáe, as Veronica, is kidnapped by a supernatural force and taken back in time to a 19th-century plantation, where she becomes the enslaved woman Eden. In depicting her fight for survival, Bush and Renz wanted to be as accurate as possible to the brutality of real-life plantations, including the complicity of Southern white women in the suffering of enslaved African-Americans.
“We learned, in some of our research, that fathers who wanted to protect their fortunes for their daughters that were [to be] married would raise them to learn how to treat their slaves, and how to keep their slaves, because so much of their inheritance and the economics of the South was tied up in human chattel,” Bush says. “And so, some of these women, if they married a gentleman who wasn’t of the same caliber, they would keep their enslaved people, their property, separate and apart from that of their husbands’. So they spent a great deal of time traumatizing and brutalizing and scaring their enslaved people.”
He adds, “One of the aspects of the movie that we really wanted to lean into was the fact that the vestiges of the past are ubiquitous in the present, not only in Antebellum, but in America.”
Antebellum is available now on VOD.