Making movies is arduous, but the appreciation that follows can make it all worthwhile. For writer-director duo Bush|Renz, comprised of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, that experience has so far evaded them. Their feature debut “Antebellum,” which premiered on PVOD last week, aimed to recontextualize what American slavery meant. To put it kindly, it found a blistering reception.
The film, a glossy twist on the so-called “slave narrative,” stars Janelle Monáe as a woman “trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the past, present and future.” (The promotional language is cryptic, but to say more would create spoilers.) The filmmakers (Bush is Black, Renz is white) made “Antebellum” to catalyze a national dialogue around a host of urgent topics, including race.
Critics don’t see it that way. Rotten Tomatoes currently scores “Antebellum” with a 28 percent rating, with the critical consensus that it’s “a largely unpleasant experience.” It has its supporters — Stephanie Zacharek at Time praises Monáe as “electrifying” and said the film is “a tense, thoughtful picture that seeks both to entertain and provoke.” She’s the outlier; others described it as “a gory theme-park ride showcasing the horrors of slavery” (The Atlantic) and a “leering, exploitative depiction of violent, slavery movie tropes” (RogerEbert.com).
Bush|Renz, best known for their advertising work and directing Jay Z’s 2017 “Kill Jay Z” short, know all of this, of course. Some filmmakers might find this crushing. “Well, we’re the number-one movie in the country on all platforms, streaming or rented or otherwise, so, there’s that,” Bush said. “So, apparently, the polarization of the conversation around this movie is working to great effect.”
Beyond box-office returns, they take the long view. “We maintain our sovereignty as artists above a tech platform as Rotten Tomatoes, because we know that in the end, this is a marathon and the art will be not judged to just in this moment,” Bush said. “And I think that you would be hard pressed to say that the movie isn’t generating so much conversation even among critics. We want them to have those conversations. But we don’t want to put ourselves in a place where our decision making, as artists, will be informed by what critics have to say about our art.”
Renz believes much of the critical reaction speaks to the film’s subject matter rather than the film itself. “We knew, based on slavery, that there were going to be plenty of people that would say, ‘Why is this movie necessary at this time? It’s irresponsible’, etc, and that’s the headline — that there’s no need for any other ‘slave film’, which we completely understand,” he said. “However, we’re not going to contribute to the erasure of the history of Black people in America and how this country was founded, and where they want to get back to. This movie really is a visual representation of what ‘Make America Great Again’ would look like.”
Bush rejects the idea of what is colloquially referred to as “slavery movie fatigue,” insisting that there are still far more stories to be told and being white is not a prerequisite to being a provocateur. “Me, as a Black American artist, I’m going to be really accurate about what my own history looks like,” he said. “Our Jewish brothers and sisters have done an effective job of taking responsibility for their own story,” he said. “I think from our perspective, the stories of the enslaved are by and large always approved or greenlit by someone white. And so it’s interesting to me that Quentin Tarantino is the only one who has been able to do something so provocative with the slave narrative in ‘Django Unchained’ because he could.”
Another factor that may feed into the “Antebellum” response is whether the film’s brutality, in all of its accuracy, might be viewed as overwhelming in this particular sociopolitical environment. Americans are overwhelmed by images of Black bodies under assault in the real world, along with a deadly pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people. Who wants to see a film that depicts brutality on Black bodies in a fictional world as well?
“I want to make it clear that we are deeply respectful of the trauma that Black folk have endured since our beginning in this country and we understand the exhaustion of it,” Bush said. “We are not irresponsible artists, and we would never want to traumatize the community. We know that it is quite traumatizing for some people and we need to respect that, but we also need for them to respect that Black people are not monolith and they don’t get to decide, as ‘thought leaders,’ what black people need or the conversations that they want to have around this film.”
Bush|Renz are not the first to reinvent the slave narrative. Other projects like WGN’s underground railroad action-drama series “Underground” (2016-2017) and Focus Features’ Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet” (2019) also attempted to offer a different kind of slave narrative that broke free of the genres’ tacit restrictions that required Black characters to be portrayed as submissive victims of a tragic fate, lacking in agency. “Antebellum” shares a production company, QC Entertainment, with Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” a hit film that also hinges on the abduction of a Black person into subjugation by, and servitude of, white people.
“Black people, our history in this country, was built upon our kidnapping,” Bush said. “So thematically, kidnapping is just how many of these stories start, because our story in America starts with our kidnapping.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers hope that, at the very least, audiences walk away with the idea that Bush|Renz was committed and determined to depict Black people in a fresh and interesting way while addressing this country’s original sin of slavery.
“We cannot spend our time exhausted by critics,” said Bush. “The critics are here to critique us, the artists, and our art. They have every right to that, and we have every right to continue making the art that we feel compelled to make.”
“Antebellum” is now streaming across premium VOD platforms where it’s available for $19.99 per rental. The film is being released theatrically in select international markets.