Janelle Monáe's radical rebellion
Even within the confines of a 4x7-inch Zoom window, where computer screens and unstable internet connections can inhibit the intimacy of a traditional interview, Janelle Monáe exerts a certain level of control over the conversation.
When she senses her answer veering off course: "Let me start that over." If the question being asked of her is too ambiguous to appropriately answer: "Can you rephrase that for me?" When a tweet of hers is misquoted within a question: "Let me clarify what you just said. I never said that."
What all of this indicates is how deliberate and mission-oriented Monáe is at the moment — rightfully so considering the subject matter of the work she is promoting. Her new film Antebellum mostly takes place on a slave plantation that Monáe's character Veronica Henley, a successful author and lecturer, must figure out how to escape. In the vein of Get Out, it mines the horrors that have, in part, shaped the Black American experience. "There is nothing more horrific than, in my opinion, America's first big sin and that was enslaving Black people, stealing Black bodies," the star tells EW.
Antebellum marks the 34-year-old Monáe's first lead role in a motion picture. "It wasn't an easy yes because I knew emotionally, it was going to take a lot for me to honor my ancestors," she says. "The things that were appealing to me were that [the film] was centering the Black woman, and centering her voice. I thought that was super important to highlight globally systemic racism, white supremacy, microaggressions — [they're] all connected."
In the (seemingly) modern-day element of the film's story, Henley is the type of outspoken public intellectual whose work would land on one of those anti-racist booklists that started circulating this past June, in the wake of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. But Antebellum immerses viewers in a world evocative of the time period the title represents, too. To make two disparate parts whole, Monáe studied Black women similar to Henley in profile, such as Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Jovian Zayne Irvin, Maxine Waters, and Angela Rye. "I watched them online, I had an opportunity to have personal relationships with them, pick their brains," says Monáe. "That was really my North Star."
Inevitably, she went to some dark places. "When I was on set late at night, tired… all I could think about was, what if their voices were silenced?" she asks of the Black women who inspired her take on the character. "Maxine Waters gets death threats every single day. She was a big reason why I said yes to this film. Because Veronica's voice is very powerful, and there are white, cis, Christian-faith, heterosexual men" — she takes a breath between each identifier, striving to compile as pointed a profile as possible — "who want to make America great again, trying to silence her."
While this was her first time on top of the call sheet for a film, Monáe knew how to advocate for herself on set. "I'm vocal about what I need," she says. "If you need a moment between takes, because things are too intense, or if you're like, 'Hey guys, let's not take too long between takes because I have to stay in this heightened sense of survival mode,' then you state those things," Monáe advises. "I think there's always a way to say them, and there's always an opportunity for everyone to learn process from each other."
Adds costar Jena Malone, who plays a wealthy, wicked white supremacist named Elizabeth in Antebellum: "She had deep respect for process, for taking risks, for having conversations, [for] not being scared to kind of stop everything and ask a bunch of questions. She led with this environment of consent and self-respect and really knowing how to protect her instruments, which felt radical. So many people like to downplay their needs on set and they just don't take up enough space, particularly a woman, particularly a Black woman. And I just love how she took up space."
Antebellum, while not lacking for physical violence, focuses its depiction of chattel slavery on the psychological, with sequences showing the many ways slaveholders would crush an enslaved person's psyche. Punishments range from women having to appease visiting confederate soldiers, to Veronica's ally (Tongayi Chirisa) having to clean the chamber in which the plantation owners cremated his peers that they'd murdered. Given that intensity, directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz facilitated necessary conversations between the actors in order for them to better understand everyone's backgrounds, and where they stood on issues the film was tackling. "The themes in this film are very sensitive for both sides. If you are a white actor coming into this, [or] a Black actor, it's sensitive and you have to tread lightly," says Monáe. At times, the filmmakers closed the set for Monáe to best inhabit Henley. Says Bush of those scenes, "The person that we knew as Janelle Monáe had exited, and she was truly possessed by the ancestors, I think."
Hanging behind Monáe as we talk is a portrait of the late Prince, whom she lovingly credits for teaching her both firsthand, and from afar, how to fully realize an idea. Much like her musical hero, who jumped from high-concept videos and electric live performances to Purple Rain, Monáe was already an established entertainer by the time she appeared onscreen in the award-winning 2016 films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. "Film has always been like a natural progression for me — [having studied] acting and singing growing up. "I really only thought that this would be my career," she admits. "I didn't have another plan or thought or purpose in my mind outside of what I'm doing right now. I didn't know that it would look like this, but I knew that… not just being put in one category or one genre was going to be important."
So far, her movies are finding a place at the center of thorny conversations. Antebellum arrives on a wave of decidedly mixed — in a few cases, sharply negative — critical reviews. (Read EW's critic Leah Greenblatt here.) And for whatever command Monáe had on the set of the film, she's knows she can't control the misgivings audience members may have about Antebellum, especially Black moviegoers. "This is not a slave movie, and this is not a white savior movie," the actress declares. "Most of the films I've watched over the years that deal with this very evil system have predominantly been white savior films. I don't think that [they hold] white folks accountable in the way that they should. It absolves them."
Monáe is well aware that she's already starred in movies that have been accused of perpetuating those narratives. Hidden Figures was significant for her to be a part of, in its accessible telling of a group of Black women who helped get astronauts into space, but the scene in which a NASA leader (played by Kevin Costner) hacks down a "colored" restroom sign was hit hard as a gratuitous white savior plot point. Same goes for Harriet last year, in which Monáe played a small but crucial part: Some criticized a moment where Harriet Tubman's former "master" kills a Black bounty hunter that was after her, feeling it served as a redemptive action for the slaveholder.
"Black people have the right to critique anything that's centered around the Black voice, and historical figures — especially Harriet," Monáe asserts. "I'm not the filmmaker, I'm not the writer." She pauses to consider whether or not to expand on the subject. "And I'll just leave it at that."
As for reactions to Antebellum, once it reaches a wider audience? "It'll trigger people in general," Monáe says. This film, she argues, isn't about "feeling better about ourselves because at the end, we got a chance to redeem ourselves," as she phrases it. Antebellum can instead be "a mirror for those who are not committed to being anti-racist."
"I really want white people to watch this film," she says. "I hope [it shows] people who don't get why Black lives matter, who have benefited from these systems that have not been built for Black lives, [to] stop perpetuating the delusions of white supremacy globally."
Since the 2018 release of her critically acclaimed third studio album Dirty Computer, Monáe has largely taken a break from music, save for two singles, both made for films: "That's Enough" for last year's live action Lady in the Tramp remake (in which she also voices singing canine Peg), and now "Turntables" for the upcoming Amazon Studios documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy.
Speaking specifically to "Turntables," a song she hopes "can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work" to turn this election, Monáe declares, "Music speaks to everyone and of course has a huge influence in the way we think, things we do, and how we move. Lyrics to our favorite songs replay in our heads, and I hope my words stick to the ears that listen to it."
This year has already given precedent to the impact of her songwriting, with how her music scored two poignant pop cultural moments that happened earlier this summer. The weekend before our interview, Chicago drag queen Shea Couleé had just won RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars season 5 by flawlessly lip-syncing to Monáe's "Make Me Feel," a personally liberating single that's become a queer anthem. "I was just so overwhelmed, knowing that Shea won," Monáe says, "and that it was to music she says has been uplifting for her and her spirit means the universe. So, super honored, and also shy about all of this."
Making sure credit is given where it's due, the humble singer notes, "This is Shea's moment though. And we should continue to uplift Shea, because Shea gives so much life to whatever Shea performs."
Second, Monáe's song "Pynk" was featured in I May Destroy You, in an episode where protagonist Arabella (creator and star Michaela Coel) reveals to an audience that a colleague violated her. "The fact that she was able to turn her pain and her trauma into something that so many people can relate to is not a small feat," Monáe says of Coel. (She affectionately refers to her as her sister.) "So having 'Pynk' be at that moment where she's trying to survive and overcome this traumatic event, and that song was able to comfort her and put a smile on her face, brought tears to my eyes."
Monáe's relaxed, vulnerable demeanor is a far cry from the enigmatic android character she created for her albums, which often dominated early coverage of her career. If the debate around Antebellum leaves any particular imprint on Monáe, it may just intensify what's already a major consideration for her — how necessary it is to expand what stories Black artists are allowed to tell. "So much of my time is spent developing and wanting to tell radical and rebellious stories," she says. "Stories that highlight marginalized voices who haven't really particularly been given an opportunity from big blockbusters to quiet films, [from] sci-fi to noir. We're just trying to remain free in our thinking in the same way that our white counterparts have been."
Monáe wants that level of freedom for herself. She wistfully looks up toward her ceiling as she lists genres for films that she imagines one day being able to shoot without fear for public safety (Monáe is adamant about following COVID-19 safety protocols, saying, "I'm not playing around with this pandemic"): "I want to be able to make children's films, I want to be able to make dark comedies," she says. "I want to be able to unleash all of what I know I possess inside of me and give that to the world."
As the conversation wraps, Monáe still conveys a strong fervor to reach whatever goals she accomplishes next. Throughout our discussion, she has subtly let it be known that permission isn't something she's worried about; listening to her, it feels like nothing could hinder her artistic goals. She signs off with an exuberant goodbye: "We'll talk soon." To be sure, we'll have a lot more to discuss.
—Additional reporting by Chancellor Agard
Motion photography by Tiffany Johnson / Director: Tiffany Johnson; DP: Ruben Contreras; Still Photographer: Jessica Chou.
Styling: Alexandra Mandelkorn/The Only Agency; Hair: Nikki Nelms; Makeup: Jessica Smalls/The Wall Group. WHITE LOOK: Top, Skirt: Studio 189; Earrings: Get Made LA; Rings: XIV Karats. RED LOOK: Top, Skirt: Mara Hoffman; Hat: Ashanti Designs; Earrings: (L) Melinda Maria (R) Bondeye Jewelry; Rings: German Kabirski, XIV Karats, Tuleste.
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