Six-time Grammy nominee Janelle Monae is known for her high-energy, electrifying pop and R&B music.
Her songs often tell stories of bold, unapologetic women… in a distant future. She’s called herself a time traveller, business woman, and of course, an artist.
Monae recently ventured to a new frontier: the big screen, making her debut in the critically acclaimed drama “Moonlight.”
Now she plays a pioneering NASA mathematician in “Hidden Figures,” which co-stars Taraji P. Henderson and Octavia Spencer. Based on a true story, the film follows three black women — Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — who were instrumental in launching the first American into orbit.
The film is set during a time of Cold War politics and and segregation, when black women did not have the right to vote.
Monae told Press Play that when reading the script for the first time, she thought it was historical fiction. “I said wow, someone has finally written the characters I want to see portrayed on screen. Finally we’re going to have three female protagonists, and they’re gonna be beautiful and brilliant.”
When she found out the women were real, she became emotional. “I was excited, then I became upset, then I became confused. Why hadn’t I heard about these women? I’m an African-American woman. I never heard about them in my history or math classes. I had no clue. And I was like, man, was I paying attention or not?”
She spoke to her family and friends, and nobody had heard of the women. She said she then made it a personal responsibility to make sure no other American went through life not knowing about these American heroes.
Monae plays Mary Jackson, the first African-American female aerospace engineer. In the movie, Jackson begins as a mathematician, who petitions a judge let her attend an all-white school, so she can meet the requirements for becoming a NASA engineer.
For Monae, there are parallels between Jackson and her breakout role in of Teresa in “Moonlight.” Theresa becomes a mother figure for a young black gay boy growing up poor in Miami. Both characters are strong, dynamic, heroic and human. “I think it’s just important to note that queens come from all walks of life. They can be in your ghetto, and they can be at NASA,” she said.
To play Teresa, Monae said she did a lot of research, pulling from the experiences of women in her community who were married to drug dealers, but who drew out the best in those men. “I did have the opportunity to speak to very close friends and family to understand what those kids who had drug-addicted parents, what they were looking for in a surrogate mom. I think the common denominator was someone to just listen. Not judge. Someone to love them unconditionally.”
Monae is excited to see more strong women onscreen, and so are audiences. During its opening weekend, “Hidden Figures” took the top spot at the box office, beating “Rogue One.”
“No matter what our color is, just seeing women celebrated for their minds and their brilliance and not objectified, but studied and looked at as subjects to study into the end of time, is so empowering,” said Monae.
She also plans to attend the Women’s March on Washington during Donald Trump’s inauguration. “We get to vote. We get to speak out. We get to speak against hate and sexism and racism and all those isms that constantly try to divide us. And I think we have to remember that we hold the power, and we can’t give up, we can’t let up, no matter who’s in the position of power.”