In 'Antebellum,' Tongayi Chirisa Is Playing More Than A Slave Role [Interview]

When Zimbabwean actor Tongayi Chirisa first read Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's script for Antebellum, he leapt at the chance to star in the ambitious horror parable. It was something new, envelope-pushing, and powerful, even if Chirisa is playing one of the most common roles offered to Black actors: a slave.

"I didn't have any qualms or thoughts on that, because I judge the story by the context of what the script is trying to say," Chirisa told /Film in a Zoom interview ahead of the VOD release of Antebellum. Chirisa takes on the role of Eli, a fellow slave a the plantation where Janelle Monae's character is trapped, who also bears suggestions of another life.

"I think he's a representation of society," Chirisa said. "He's a representation of Black men, not only in America but the world over. I think society and the systems in America need to stop seeing Black people as stereotypes as tropes, or fantasy, or one dimensional."

Read our interview with Chirisa below.

What was your reaction when you read the script by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz for Antebellum?

My reaction. I'mma show you, I was like, "Oh! No way! Get out of town!" Literally verbatim. I was in my apartment reading this thing and it blew me away. You know, it was one of those things that definitely just drew me in. I could see the world that they had created, and I was just enamored, like I read that in one sitting. After I was done, I was just like, "Wow, this is gonna be powerful," if it was the way I envisioned it. I think what they did with cinematographer Pedro [Luque] they took it to the next level. So I was very, very pleased and satisfied with the final product.

So there has been sort of a discussion about the relatively limited choices for the roles that Black actors get to play. Often, for example, slaves. So, when you went into this role, as your character is mostly shown in the plantation scenes, was that something that was that you were wary of, despite the twist of this film?

No, I didn't have any qualms or thoughts on that because I judge the story by the context of what the script is trying to say. So whether you're playing a slave, or rapper, or a drug dealer, you know, it's all in context of the script. And I think this story just really amplified the plight of what Gerard and Chris were trying to say. So I don't judge the characters like that, I look at it from a full spectrum. And so, to answer that [in regards to] the plight of roles in Hollywood... of course, that's been an ongoing conversation. But I think we are starting to see shifts within the industry, where things that were normally just curtailed for Caucasian actors, we started to see that being fleshed out. Because why not ? You know, we're all human. If a white actor can play a doctor or a neurosurgeon, so can a person of color. So it's about time that we start to reflect what's really on the ground. I'm surprised it took this long, but this is what happens. Change eventually comes. So I'm very, very excited to see that. And somebody once said to me, "There are no small roles, just small actors." And I think it rings true that if you have a very narrow mind as to, "Oh I'm playing a slave again" you need to look deeper than just what's on the surface. Because they're human beings, they have many multiple facets about them, so you can't ever play them one way, because not every slave is the same, otherwise we'll be robots.

Speaking of the size of the role, your character probably has the fullest arc aside from Janelle Monae. And we have hints of life beyond the plantation with Janelle's character calling you Professor. How much of what we kind of get about the character is in the script and how much did you get to imagine as you were playing the role?

I think he's a representation of society. He's a representation of Black men, not only in America but the world over. I think society and the systems in America need to stop seeing Black people as stereotypes as tropes, as fantasy, or one dimensional. That we are more than just the ability of how we play basketball, how we sing, and all these kind of things. that we are actually human beings we have families we have, social gatherings we have issues like everybody else. And so, I think it was, it was them trying to highlight the hypocrisy of society. Trying to say that, "Oh, that's all I see once I see the color of your skin. I don't see a professor, I don't see a doctor, I don't see this. I just see a Black man who is potentially a threat, and somebody who is less than human."

So, I think with that notion when you hear that should give you the inquisitive ear and the eye to be like, "I want to know more." We should also reflect the society that you want you need to we need to get to a point where we have to see people of color, and be intrigued to understand them, and to hear them, and to experience them as human beings, which is what the movement is all about. It gives us the ability to stand on a platform like everybody else and having equality, so we can have dialogue in the most humane way without having to worry that if I turn my back, you see that as a threat and put a bullet in me. So I think it's a great way to draw people from that notion and be like, oh, there's something more beyond where we see Eli, and the Black man in general.

So you obviously shot this film before the current Black Lives Matter movement that took hold after the death of George Floyd. When all this came to be and the release of Antebellum kind of fell amid the ongoing movement, what was your reaction to see like how timely this movie ended up being

Yeah, you know it's divine appointment. And, not only that but I think also with the directors who are, they're like the cultural activists. They are constantly pushing the narrative of change within society, within the culture, because art imitates life. They're basically saying, we're going to continually highlight the issues within our communities so that we can be an advocate for change and to better lives and society in general. But the timing could not have been more perfect, because I feel now that it's become more than just a film, it is actually a standpoint, it's a cornerstone in the fabric of change that's actually happening right now. And so for us to actually release this and in such a timely manner with the hopes that with everything that's happened, the conversations that's happened, maybe this film would give those that are still not in the know and aware of visual expression in a formatted way, that they can actually see themselves in these truths of what this film represents, and hopefully bring about the change that we so desperately need in the minds of people and society as a whole.

With the influence of Get Out and raising issues of racial microaggressions and aggressions in the horror genre, why do you think it is horror and genre filmmaking specifically that allows for these kind of conversations to be played out in a way that appeals to a broad audience?

We are the horror. We as human beings are the horror. We create environments and situations and systems that benefit others, and for others, it's abnormal, it is weird, it's suppressive, it's oppressive. And so, you find that this inevitable need to be free. And so when you see these things happening where people are trying to figure out how we can be on the same playing field, these are the horrors of today, like every war. You don't need the spooks, you don't need the monster, you know, we are that monster. And now, the monster within us needs to figure out how we can be the savior. And I think it's a beautiful way of shifting the genre from the existential and bringing it back to what really matters, which is the human condition, the human mind, the human heart, and just how wicked we can be to ourselves and to each other. And once we actually understand like, oh, we're doing this to ourselves. Hopefully that will bring about the change but that's why it's so beautiful with this genre that we are seeing ourselves in these crazy situationsm and I think that for me is the best kind of horror that you can ever, ever, produce and kudos to QC Entertainment who have kind of like touched on this niche market and showing ourselves for who we really are. And hopefully, we can find solutions moving ahead.

What you talked about just now reminded me of Lovecraft Country to which, it's kind of it's amazing how it's coming from both the film side and the TV side and the stories of uniquely Black horror.

Mhmm. It's crazy! It's like we're fighting the same thing. Like, why we are constantly trying to fight for freedom and why somebody's always trying to take it away from us? It's just the human experience, man. It shouldn't be celebrated, it shouldn't ever be this issue of black versus white or white versus black. But it's unfortunate that we've created this world and now we just trying to figure out a way to deal with it. But sometimes we need to continue to remind people the atrocities that they did so that we don't repeat the same mistakes. Otherwise we just become this loop of just the same thing, the conversations we're having today, 20 years from now, there's gonna be a movie about Black Lives Matter and they're going to be talking about the same thing. It's like, why do we have to have the same recurring theme? Let's deal with it so we can have something else to talk about. But until then, the fight continues.

The fight continues. So to you, how do you think Antebellum specifically adds to the conversations that we're having in this current landscape in this current climate?

I think we touched on it a little bit, but like I said I think it just really amplifies our truths and our experiences. You know, in the way that it is very visceral and, to some degree disturbing, which at this point now, it shouldn't be because we know we have our cell phones and we've caught the most grievous acts upon the Black men and women in ways that we shouldn't. So, to highlight that truth in its raw imagery is what we need. Because we can't sugarcoat this anymore because people are dying. And, people are looking at stats and reasons behind it when it's like somebody's life was just taken irregardless of what they did. That should not be the beginning of trying to resolve something while you're talking over dead body. So, I think we have to be more aggressive, and more visceral, because that is the only way people will bring come to a point place of realization, and the need for change. Absolutely.


Antebellum hits VOD on September 18, 2020.