'Antebellum' stars discuss the timely 'horror of the human experience' (exclusive)
Watch: Trailer for Antebellum, starring Janelle Monae
Horror has always been a genre steeped in social commentary. In the last five years or so, the world of scary movies has repeatedly been used as a vessel to tell stories about the struggles and problems of the Black experience in modern America — most notably via Jordan Peele's thrilling one-two punch of Get Out and Us.
The latest example of this brand of tale is the time-twisting horror Antebellum, in which megastar Janelle Monae stars in a dual role as brutalised slave Eden and modern day success story Dr Veronica Henley.
Initially, it's not clear what links these two women, with writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz spinning a complex mystery that illuminates how the struggle of Black people has continued for centuries.
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"In this day and age, art is an expression of what society is doing," star Tongayi Chirisa tells Yahoo Entertainment UK.
Chirisa plays slave Eli, who assists Eden as she plans an escape from the plantation on which they are both treated horrifically by their white masters. "That's the new horror. The horror of the human experience — the things that we do to each other," says the 39-year-old actor.
He adds: "If society is blatantly murdering and killing and raping and trafficking people, that's the horror that we have to face and figure out how to deal with it. So I think with the evolution of film and with the horror genre, we're gonna see more and more of these real, genuine experiences being seen on the big screen."
Chirisa says Bush and Renz have been able to "mesh and reinvent the wheel" with the horror movie in order to reflect the racial problems which still permeate American society. Speaking to Yahoo at the end of a summer defined by Black Lives Matter protests spawned by the death of George Floyd, he says it doesn't take much to push real-life experiences into the realm of horror cinema.
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"Instead of using the gimmicks of the surprise scare or the make-up, they're just putting real-life people in situations," says Chirisa. "I think the world is scary enough when you just think about the things some of us have to experience. That, in and of itself, is horrific for so many people. Just to see how the normal, average individual has to navigate certain circumstances is horrifying enough.
"This is a narrative that expresses the feelings of the African-American population and how they want to see justice and equality given and afforded to them, just like any other person in America. I'm so excited about this because it's a statement. It's us trying to let people know that change needs to happen and we need it now."
Monae and Chirisa's characters are tormented and tortured on the plantation by the likes of Jack Huston's brutal Confederate soldier Jasper and his wife, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Malone says the "responsibility outweighs the risk" when it comes to taking on such an unpleasant, evil character but acknowledges that it took a toll on her and was difficult to switch off from at the end of the day.
"We have to examine the past. I have to do it for my son and for the people who will be living after me," she adds. "We are such a product of a white-washed and white-canvassed historical understanding of the great oppression and trauma in America. As a white, cisgender woman of privilege, it's 100% my job to not only rewrite that history but to inspire people that we need to keep on learning more."
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Huston agrees, noting that "just because you're not a racist, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist", and that this misconception stops people from engaging with the issue. The 38-year-old Brit says he was "honoured" to take on the role, despite its difficulties.
He adds: "Because people are not necessarily affected by racism or they don't see it overtly, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be speaking up and supporting everybody around us. This movie is hopefully going to shine a light on that. It's saying that systemic racism is very much alive and well and rearing its very ugly head and we need to do everything we can to stop it."
Monae has become a powerhouse of popular culture in recent years and Antebellum marks her first foray into being a cinematic leading lady. For Chirisa, working alongside a bona fide A-lister was an experience that left him "geeking out". He says: "Just to see Janelle do what she does and how she processes her work and how she approaches it, it was really inspiring. I'm so excited for people to see her in this because it's unlike anything else she has ever done.
"Everything she does is very thought out. Nothing is just done because it's a pay-cheque. Everything is about pushing the narrative and changing the landscape so people get to see and understand the Black experience."
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The film was a premium video-on-demand release in the USA last year and is now arriving in the UK for subscribers to Sky Cinema and NOW. Malone, speaking prior to the Stateside release, says she is excited for the movie to be at the forefront of new release strategies, rather than worrying about the loss of a cinema run.
"I just think that this moment is too revolutionary to really be disappointed at getting to be in a new space together," the star says. "Premium video-on-demand is so new and we don't know what it's going to be, but the further you can reach people the better the film has a chance to make its impact. Right now, this is the most impactful and important way to do that."
Antebellum is available to stream via Sky Cinema and NOW from 2 April.
Watch: Janelle Monae talks about honouring Black women