The “Antebellum” star is hoping her art can help people understand the urgency of the present.
There’s a fire burning in Janelle Monáe. It’s quiet but it’s impossible not to feel, even through the screen.
Not even a week had passed since the death of Chadwick Boseman, a friend and inspiration to the artist, when she sat down for a Zoom interview with HuffPost. Though focused, she brought a heaviness with her. One that was especially evident after six long months of a global pandemic, Black lives stolen by police violence, a nationwide uprising and more fallen Black heroes than anyone was equipped to handle.
“A simple ‘how are you doing’ for me is hard to answer honestly,” Monáe said after letting out a half chuckle, half sigh. She knows survival mode is a constant state of being for Black people in America, but 2020 has been especially difficult.
Still, Monáe is fired up.
“I think that what I’ve been trying to do is be a better human to the people that I feel like I can be of service to and of assistance to,” she said. Amid the pandemic, Monáe has helped to fight food insecurity and joblessness with her #WondaLunch drives, designed to support the communities most impacted by COVID-19. She’s also been vocal on social media and in press appearances about Black Lives Matter, defunding the police and the importance of voting in the upcoming election. “That’s where I’m putting my focus in, and putting my focus into art.”
Janelle Monáe’s ANTEBELLUM
The 34-year-old stars as Veronica Henley in “Antebellum,” her first lead role. The film, written and directed by “Get Out” and “Us” producers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, is a dystopian thriller that follows Veronica as she works to escape a plantation where Black people are enslaved by white folks who are motivated by a violent thrill.
The script was based on a nightmare Bush had in which he felt like his ancestors were sitting on his bed watching him. The film is far from an easy watch. In addition to the fatigue around movies based on enslavement, it’s drenched in brutally violent scenes in a year when there’s no shortage of real-life footage of Black people being murdered (something the film has been heavily criticized for). Monáe admitted that she wasn’t sure about taking on a role in such a traumatic film. But she felt called to seize the challenge.
“I don’t choose my roles. My roles choose me,” she told HuffPost. Since her acting debut in 2016’s “Moonlight,” Monáe has had parts in “Hidden Figures,” “Harriet,” “The Glorias” and “Homecoming.” She said after reading the script for “Antebellum,” she felt its message was important.
It “connected the past, the present and what the future could be, and can be,” she said. “Speaking about today, speaking about police brutality, speaking about all of the Black lives who have been stolen from us at the hands of the police, speaking about white supremacy, speaking about systemic racism ― you can’t talk about those things without going into the past, without talking about chattel slavery, without talking about how we even got here in the first place.”