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.”
The 34-year-old stars as Veronica Henley in “Antebellum,” her first lead role. The film, written and directed by 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.”
Veronica is an esteemed author and activist who has a loving family and considerable wealth. She’s an educated and outspoken leader who experiences microaggressions — and flat-out racism — that feel as threatening in the film as they do in real life. Monáe said she looked to activists and leaders such as Maxine Waters, Brittany Packnett, Bree Newsome, Angela Rye and the Black Lives Matter founders as inspiration when bringing her character to life.
“Black women like Veronica and Black women that we know that carry the burden of dismantling systemic oppression, systemic racism and white supremacy,” she said. “I feel like not a lot of people understand that it’s not our job to do this, yet we do it. And I wanted to humanize Veronica because so often we’re told Black women are superheroes or Black women are going to save the world. I think that we owe Black women a lot.”
What the Kansas City, Kansas, native couldn’t prepare for, however, was the feeling of stepping onto a former slave plantation for the first time in her life. We’re introduced to her as Eden, the name the enslavers call her. On the plantation, she is quiet, scared and — quite literally— careful about every step she takes. Though she was knowledgeable before filming about the inhumane violence that enslaved Black people faced, Monáe said she had to channel the spirit of her ancestors to see her through the production.
“Sometimes I couldn’t talk to my mom. I couldn’t talk to people that I would on a day-to-day basis because I was just living, trying to put myself in their shoes,” she said. “And I just remember watching some of the first takes from some of these scenes and just not seeing myself. I was like, oh, I see the spirit of somebody else, somebody that has come before me that is saying, ‘Tell the truth, tell the truth.’ It’s going to be triggering, it’s going to be painful, but in order for us to change, we’re going to have to get uncomfortable. We’re going to have to be reminded of what’s at stake and how things can get worse, because they can.”
“Antebellum” is slated for release Friday on video on demand after a five-month delay due to the pandemic. Monáe is a bit disappointed that it isn’t premiering in theaters, but is hopeful that folks will watch safely together at home. On the same day, “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a documentary about voter suppression featuring Stacey Abrams, premieres on Amazon Prime. Monáe recorded her latest single, “Turntables,” as a revolutionary anthem to accompany the documentary.
After facing her own experience with voter suppression in 2017, Monáe said Abrams’ gubernatorial loss the following year became personal for her. “I had an opportunity to also see how Brian Kemp stole the election from Stacey. I saw that firsthand, became infuriated.” The artist said that she hadn’t intended to get into the studio until Abrams asked her to record a track for the documentary.
“I wrote ‘Turntables’ because Stacey asked me to be in it, but I wrote it for myself. I needed that song. And I said, listen, this song is about the revolution,” Monáe told HuffPost. “This song is about the spinning of the revolution, how things are turning and how the rooster has come home to roost.”
Though activism has always been a big part of her work, Monáe doesn’t pretend to be a leader of the movement. She’s humble enough to say she doesn’t have all the answers. But what she does know is that things “can get worse,” regardless of how numb or tired folks already are.
“Haven’t we already had enough? Yes, we have,” Monáe said matter-of-factly. “We’re going to have to pull together and really understand the importance of voting and making sure that we’re voting out those who are voting in racist policies that continue to oppress us. We cannot continue on like the way we have. And I think we know that, and my hope is that white women know that, that white men know that, that those who benefit from racist policies understand, know that and act accordingly.”
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