With 'Moonlight' And 'Hidden Figures,' Janelle Monáe Brings The Good Fight To Hollywood

The singer's debut movies are vital stories of social injustice.
Isaiah Trickey via Getty Images

You know how novels sometimes open with quotes from other novels? Here’s one to begin this interview, except it’s from the interview itself: ”An injustice done to me should also be an injustice done to white men.”

Janelle Monáe said those essential words two weeks ago when we sat down in New York to discuss her new movies. During our conversation, Monáe spoke a lot about superpowers. She used her own to launch a music career that has rendered her a verified fashion deity, and now Monáe has taken those superpowers to Hollywood.

This weekend, she makes her live-action film debut in “Moonlight,” the breathtaking coming-of-age drama that chronicles three chapters in the life of Chiron, an inner-city Miami boy grappling with his sexuality. In “Hidden Figures,” which opens Dec. 25, Monáe will play Mary Jackson, one of the women essential in determining the calculations needed to advance NASA’s role in the Space Race. (I caught a sneak preview of “Hidden Figures” at last month’s Toronto Film Festival, where Monáe, alongside co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, waxed poetic about the project’s importance.)

“Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” are movies of their time. Both revolve around characters denied the privilege of wading through life without their gender, race or sexuality impeding their merits. Monáe has always incorporated ideas of social turmoil into her music, making these films a natural progression in her career. Here, we discuss her transition to acting and the need for stories that better the plight of minorities.

Every year, a few movies break out of the festival whirlwind. Even those that do aren’t received as rapturously as “Moonlight.” Having moved from one medium to another, how are you taking it all in?

Well, I’m extremely grateful and thankful. I studied acting, so it feels right at home for me. I’ve never looked at myself as transitioning or moving from any field. I am an artist and a storyteller who simply wants to tell universal stories in unforgettable ways, stories that have not been told, portraying characters and being a part of a movie that really shifts culture and shifts the conversation on humanity, on more empathy and on embracing what makes you unique, even if makes others uncomfortable. That’s what this movie is really about. Both “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” are two very important movies. When I read the scripts, I cried. That was genuine. I had a visceral reaction, and I made a conscious decision to move my schedule around and get my head in the right place to be available for these.

Were you planning to record another album?

I’m always working on music. I think film, music, art ― all those things are just such a natural part of my DNA and who I am. I think the themes in both “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight” are in my music.

Janelle Monáe stars in a scene from "Moonlight."
Janelle Monáe stars in a scene from "Moonlight."

The alter-ego that you create onstage and the persona that you embody in your music are thematically linked to these movies. You’ve always focused on addressing the plight of the Other.


For you as a black woman, and for me as a gay man ...

... We’re all connected. We need allies, period. We’re the minority. It’s not something I look at as a weakness, or like we should play victims. It is simply highlighting our collective voices and saying that it’s important to highlight the stories of these nuanced individuals so that when we’re out in the real world and we come across someone that feels familiar, that feels like the character you saw on TV, you think differently on how you treat them. We deserve to have the same opportunities, the same respect as any other person in society.

Everyone needs a “Moonlight” growing up. What were yours?

When I took on the role of Teresa in “Moonlight,” I instantly connected with her. The characters in “Moonlight” reminded me of my younger cousins and people in my neighborhood who were really struggling with hypermasculinity and what it means to be a black man. We were raised Baptist. There are some things in the Bible that people use against gay people ― you know this firsthand ― to shame gay people because of them simply being themselves. I think that it was just important to connect that to those moments that I’ve had in my adult life and my youth. When I’ve seen those moments of discrimination and my friends and family would turn against them, they would use the Bible as a whip. And they really could not beat themselves, and I was always the one there to nurture, to just be a shoulder to lean on. It seemed pretty organic for me to play this role.

Naomie Harris has said she’s made a point of choosing positive portrayals of black women in her career, and how “Moonlight” was a tough ask at first because she’s playing a crack addict. Is that a desire you share?

Well, first, let me state: Naomie Harris did one hell of a job. I absolutely, hands down, respect her as an actress and respect her thought process behind the role she wants to take. The character that Naomie plays, the crack addict, I have people in my family who remind me of this person. These are real people. All of these characters are people I can empathize with. They remind me of my own community. I think it’s so important, again, to highlight their stories. People on drugs are human beings. They’re our brothers and our sisters, and they deserve to have their layers uncovered so people can understand why they made the choices that they made. We are so quick to judge the person on drugs, the person who overeats, the person who chooses to make something their addiction. It’s just important to know why and how it happens before we rush to judgment about them. That’s why it would be important for me to tell as many unique stories or as many stories around people who are oftentimes outcast from society.

Life gets more complicated for Chiron as he grows up in each chapter of the movie. Your character is one of the few sources of positivity in his life. What was it like transitioning between those chapters and conveying the time that has passed in these characters’ lives?

The thing I wanted to make sure of with Teresa was that she was a constant, positive nurturer in Chiron’s life, from when he was a little boy, all the way up until he was in high school, and then the third act, a man. I wanted that to be very clear, and I hope I did the best job of conveying Teresa and how important she was to his life. It’s because of her that he wasn’t homeless. It’s because of her that he was able to deal with the bullying. It’s because of her that he felt safe, and that was important, that he felt safe, no matter how old he was. Because that’s what you need. We all need that one person that ― no matter where we are in life and no matter how old we are, what we look like, what we’re going through ― you can count on to just be there, to listen, to be nonjudgmental.

What did you make of working with two different actors playing the same character?

Both actors are incredible. We had a ball on set. I just thought the casting was incredible because none of the three actors who played the one character, Chiron, got a chance to meet each other. They had no clue. Barry Jenkins, the director, who was genius, did not want them to start mimicking each other or trying to figure out how they fit in with each other’s mannerisms and whatnot. It was brilliant casting mixed with them all reading the script and hearing the same voice.

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in a scene from "Hidden Figures."
Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in a scene from "Hidden Figures."

With compassion and education, anyone is capable of telling a nuanced story, whether or not it relates to their own life experience. That said, how do you feel about a white man directing “Hidden Figures” and a straight man directing “Moonlight”?

I love [Ted Melfi, the director of “Hidden Figures”]. Ted is an Italian, actually, and if you know his story, he grew up poor. He had humble beginnings. The thing that I loved most about working with Ted was that he trusted his actors. He trusted me, Taraji and Octavia as black women to tell our own stories. It wasn’t him coming in every day and saying, “Hey, this is what it meant to be a black woman who worked at NASA trying to win the Space Race.” He always wanted to know what we think, period. He was there behind the lens, but he was not coming in and telling us how to be black women. He can’t do that, you’re absolutely correct. And that’s what I loved about it. He used his superpowers, and he stayed in his lane, which was making sure the story came together. I’m so thankful that he started to work on the script and help it come to fruition. I’m thankful for Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book that lit the fire. It really was a community effort. There were a lot of female producers who helped put “Hidden Figures” together, and as women we need allies.

I look at Ted, I look at Barry ― allies. And it’s important that we have that because an injustice done to me should also be an injustice done to white men. They should look at it as “this is something we all have to get on board to fix,” and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Do you hope that, when you and I sit down to chat in 20 years from now, we aren’t having this conversation anymore?

Yeah, I think we have unfinished business. There’s a lot that happened even in the 1960s, half a century ago. Some of those things are still happening. Women are still underpaid because of their gender. There’s still sexism, there’s still racism. So I hope we’re continuing to have the necessary conversations with each other to make the changes ― and not just talk about it, but show it through our actions, show it through how we’re hiring, show it through inclusion. I think that’s going to be important as the world is changing. There’s going to be a new race. This is a melting pot, when you think about America and you think about the world.

We’re absolutely going to have to continue to have conversations. Some conversations I want us to be further along in, especially when you’re dealing with racism and sexism. Those two things, for me, can be changed. It’s through education. I hope 50 years from now we’re doing more listening and less talking.

Obviously it will take legislation and activism to get there, but as corny as it sounds, if we can give young audiences movies like “Moonlight,” we can change the world.

Absolutely. You are absolutely correct. “Moonlight” is so important for humanity to see. It’s important to understand what it’s like to be a young, black male discovering that he’s gay and he’s living in an impoverished background or neighborhood, and what it’s like for him not to have support from his entire community on what his sexual orientation is. And I think when you also compare that to what women have been experiencing, to what immigrants have been experiencing ― the Other. I think it’s time that we all continue to embrace the things that make us unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable. We should choose freedom over fear. That’s what I think watching this movie will help us come to the conclusion of.

On a lighter note, who won the dance battle at President Obama’s birthday party: you, Stephen Colbert or Usher?

Well, you know, I can’t speak too much. I love my president. It was a private party. I will say this: Just know I’m not gonna lose.

I’d be disappointed if you answered any other way.

I’m not gonna lose when I’m battling anybody dancing, especially when I have on flats. I had on flats that day.

When Diddy first signed you to Bad Boy Records, you probably never imagined you’d attend the president’s birthday.

I don’t take a moment for granted. The next five minutes are not promised to any of us, so I try and connect with people. The president is an awesome person, someone I know has fought hard for this country. He will dearly be missed, but I am excited about the future and I’m excited about being able to do more community work with the people I’ve met who are in positions of power. That’s what it’s about: How are we going to use our superpowers? We can really change perception and we can change these stereotypes about African-Americans, about women, about gay people. We can do that through entertainment and connecting with each other and cultivating ideas that bring humanity together.

“Moonlight” opens in theaters Oct. 21. “Hidden Figures” opens in limited release Dec. 25 and expands to wide release Jan. 6. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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