K iersey Clemons is unintentionally putting me to sleep. It’s another dull day of quarantine, we’re chatting over Zoom and it’s taking all that’s within me to keep to the job at hand and not get lost in her slow, melodic voice. I mean this in the best way possible. It sounds like soft butter and is thoughtful as she considers each word.
She’s telling me about the scrunchie she’s wearing on her arm right now, which sounds boring, but listening to her tell it, it’s not. Well, she’s not so much telling me about it as she is defending it. It’s from Guthrie, Oklahoma, a town she was recently filming in, and it’s from Walmart. Yes, Walmart. Don’t get her wrong, she doesn’t actually support the big-box store that is notorious for underpaying its workers, providing poor working conditions and being a general scourge on communities, but with so little to do in such a small town (population 11,000), the 26-year-old actress had no choice. “We go to Walmart, and then we go to Goodwill. Do you know what I mean? You have to counteract capitalism, dog,” says Kiersey, leaning into the camera with a smile.
You might recognize that smile from Dope, where she played Cassandra "Diggy" Andrews, or RENT Live! on FOX, where she took her turn as Joanne Jeffersone, a stern lesbian among a group of struggling artist misfits in 1990s New York, or as Chase from Easy, the Netflix comedy where she played an aspiring burlesque dancer trying to figure out her sexuality.
Yeah, so her latest role isn't like any of those. Kiersey stars in a psychological thriller led by Janelle Monáe, called Antebellum, where she plays a slave, Julia, who meets a cruel fate, which you probably could have guessed based on the premise alone. (Movies about slavery don’t have a reputation for being the happy ending type.) The film toggles between 2020 America and the plantation era.
Typically, Kiersey wouldn’t take on a role like this, she tells me from her home, wearing a thrifted floral spaghetti-strap dress. She's not interested in feeding into “Black pain porn,” or the glorification of Black suffering, you know? And she definitely never wanted to play someone enslaved. She even had a personal game where she tallied how long it would take her in her career to play a slave (it took 10 years). But the script for Antebellum had her “gobsmacked” when she first read it. It made the “bells and whistles” of her brain go off, she says. “I wanted to be a part of this story that I felt like was coming at a really good time," Kiersey says, "where we needed to put a button on something.” By "something," she’s probably talking about the racial crisis our country is currently facing, which is as important now as it's ever been.
Though the film is debuting in a moment of intense racial reckoning, it seems more plausible than ever that (spoiler ahead!) a Black person could be kidnapped by evil white people and taken to a Westworld sort of place where white racists can live out their fantasies of torturing Black folks. That’s what makes the film so timely and eerie.
But just because the movie is hitting on something “topical,” and “relevant,” doesn’t mean it's for everyone. Kiersey knows that. “The movie is a journey," she says. "Someone else could watch it and come to a completely different conclusion because being Black is not a monolithic experience, obviously.” She adds, “The film allows a lot of Black folks the liberty to come to the conclusion and make their own idea of what it means to be Black, and what they want to see in film and TV and onstage.”
Here's the conclusion I came to after 105 minutes of "exploitative depictions" and "cinematic perversion": It’s hard to say whether Antebellum achieved the cultural criticism it was supposed to. If you ask movie critics, it's the epitome of Black pain porn and a gross use of Black bodies for suffering on screen. I left the film conflicted and confused, uneasy with what I just watched. I can’t decide if that’s because it was an imperfect attempt at highlighting the current reckoning happening as the Black Lives Matter movement surges on, or if I was thrilled to find the ending to be somewhat happy. I watched the movie before I spoke with Kiersey, so I formed my opinions of it before hearing her very valid reasons for taking the project. But I'll say this: it will be one of the last films I see of Black people picking cotton for quite some time.
Kiersey's experience filming the movie was a stark contrast to my experience watching it. There was a collaborative attitude that she says she hasn't experienced on other projects. “Normally on set it's like ‘respect the art,’” but this time, she says, “for the first time everyone was allowed to speak from their personal emotions.”
There’s one scene in particular that Kiersey says was a major breakthrough moment for both her and Janelle, and is an example of that exact mentality. Kiersey's role takes place within the park, so she plays the entire movie as a slave. Because of that, her character faces a lot of abuse at the hands of her white masters. In this particular scene, Kiersey’s character is working the fields when something unexpected happens to her, and she has to scream as loud as she can. “Janelle’s natural reaction to me screaming bloody murder was to be protective over my character, and to cover my mouth," Kiersey explains. "But one of our Black producers, who is a woman, said it ‘feels like she's silencing you in covering your mouth.’” Instead, Janelle decided to let Kiersey’s character get all of her emotion out before being ushered away. Silence be damned.
That kind of collaboration is why Kiersey is itching to get back to work. She wants to replicate that experience as soon as humanly possible. And yes, it does have a lot to do with the fact that she’s been stuck in her house for the majority of the last six months. Thankfully, she has her 5-year-old rescue dog Booty to keep her company, but she’s tired of our nation’s dire, quarantined circumstances, While she pours water from a glass jug into a large silver Yeti tumbler that's "so extra," she tells me how the last few months have really gotten to her. “I try to trick my mind and I try to go, Isn't it a beautiful thing that time is going by slowly right now?’” But on the other hand, she adds, “I’m just coming full circle and I'm like, I'm depressed. This is depressing.”
Like nearly everyone else, she’s tried to pick up a hobby or two to counteract those feelings. So she’s planting. Planting everything. And it hasn’t just been about passing the time, but going back to her roots (pun fully intended). “My great grandma, she always had a garden,” she says, that leisurely sing-song voice getting just a little more animated. She tells me she’s grown potatoes, onions, and habaneros, or in her words, “anything that makes your breath stink.”
She’s been able to think of gardening as more than just physically growing food. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s a life lesson. “It's kind of like finding this balance of not doing too much, but also not completely being neglectful," she says. “Not to be a hippy dippy, but you end up having these moments where you start to relate yourself to whatever you're growing, because in this time it's so easy to make everything melodramatic, right?”
Okay, yes, maybe it's a little melodramatic, but it's not hard to see why she draws that parallel. “There's so many connections between a plant and the human in terms of reaching, reaching for the light and needing watering," she says, before telling me about the symbolism of root rot, where plants die from the ground up. (Do you know anyone like that?) She thinks about how each thing growing in the ground is different, and needs to be treated in a very specific way. Some plants support the growth of others, some don't. Some attract bees, others don't. Every little leaf is about something bigger than that. At least, that's how she sees it.
The thing she's been thinking about the most, though, is growth. She wants it for herself, but she also wants that for other people. Like, America. America needs to grow, and change, and be better. We need to water our roots.
“I think part of the reason our country is struggling so much is because we don't have the same values and philosophies that other places have. In terms of, like, lean on your neighbor, love thy neighbor,” she says. “It's about community. And to think about how we've made ourselves so independent and how we do not know our neighbors and we really don't lean on each other right.”
That’s maybe the most relatable part of my conversation with Kiersey, the idea that we need to connect with each other more than ever right now, but we’ve trained ourselves to do the exact opposite. In her words, "We all live on one planet together." Maybe we should act like it.
Credits: Photographer: Kayla Varley; Digi Tech / Photo Asst: Carolina Salazar; Hair Stylist: Randy Stodghill at Opus Beauty using Oribe; Makeup Artist: Samuel Paul @ Forward Artists using Armani Beauty; Manicurist: Emi Kudo at Opus Beauty using Essie; Stylist: Toye Adedipe; Styling Assistants: Heather Meade and Marcella Sherfield; Prop Stylist: Meredith Ambruso; Production: Navia Vision
On Kiersey: Patchwork jacket look: Miu Miu coat and socks. Self-Portrait dress. White dress look: Giambattista Valli dress. White strapless dress look: Monsoori dress. Black and white dress look: Monique Lhuillier dress. NOA Jewelry ring.
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