‘Antebellum’ brings racial justice call to reopened theaters

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This image released by Lionsgate shows co-writer/directors Christopher Renz, left, and Gerard Bush on the set of "Antebellum." Filmmakers Bush and Renz planned to release their feature-length debut film, Antebellum, in the spring of 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic exploded internationally. Now, their psychological thriller about a Black woman who finds herself trapped in a pre-abolition past that isnt at all the past will be released amid protests over systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. The film, due out Aug. 21 from Lionsgate and starring singer and actress Janelle Mone, will challenge audiences over the failure to reckon with the legacy of slavery, the directors say. (Kyle B. Kaplan/Lionsgate via AP)

NEW YORK – Back in March, filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz gathered their artist friends and a few journalists at Manhattan’s members-only social club, Soho House, for a screening of their first feature-length project, “Antebellum.”

They wanted a constructively critical reaction ahead of the planned spring release of the film — a psychological thriller about a Black woman who finds herself trapped in a pre-abolition past. Bush, who is Black, and Renz, who is white, hoped the project would contribute to a national reckoning over the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the U.S.

“To witness how truly moved they were by the film, some even to tears, was the very first time we realized the potential impact ‘Antebellum’ will have on society and the long-deferred conversations that need to be had on race in America,” said the filmmakers, who wrote, directed and produced the project.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic exploded internationally.

Once the virus seized up the economy, forcing the closure of movie theaters and all but pushing Hollywood film studios into a mad dash to salvage elaborate release plans, Bush and Renz pulled their film. They said they didn’t want what was intended to be a big theatrical film relegated to a streaming platform, as several movie studios did last spring.

For Bush and Renz, patience may have proven to be a virtue.

As many movie theaters reopen in the coming weeks, “Antebellum,” set to be released Aug. 21 by Lionsgate, will debut during the height of a reckoning in America when people are increasingly showing a hunger for works that light a path toward racial justice. Driven in part by nationwide protests over the recent deaths of Black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, it's a moment that positions “Antebellum” as the only summer release that speaks both to the moment and to the broader movement to defend Black lives from entrenched, systemic racism.

“We’ve always believed that 2020 would usher in a brand new era that would require a new type of filmmaking. ... We had no idea just how prescient that would prove to be,” Bush and Renz told The Associated Press in a series of interviews and emails since the March screening.