Atlanta singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe sure knows how to pick a movie script. Her first two forays into film are both considered Oscar contenders: the critically acclaimed indie drama Moonlight and Atlanta-filmed Hidden Figures, a new historical drama chronicling the untold stories of three black female mathematicians whose data allowed NASA astronaut John Glenn to obit the Earth. We recently spoke with Monáe about her new Hollywood career:
What was it about these two films that spoke to you?
They reflect themes I’ve addressed in my music: the empowerment of women, the empowerment of the LGBT community, and the empowerment of “the other.” And as an artist, I want to ensure that moviegoers see different kinds of black women being portrayed on-screen. Representation in film is extremely important. I knew I had to drop what I was doing to be a part of them.
Your Hidden Figures costars are Taraji P. Henson, an Oscar nominee, and Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner. Were you intimidated to step into a role opposite them?
When I first came to set, I didn’t know what to expect. But there was a real sisterhood between the three of us. Taraji would cook lasagna and cauliflower and have us over. Once that [relationship] was established, I was able to relax. They’ve taken me under their wings. They never paraded the fact that they’re these genius actors in front of me. I hope that sisterhood comes across on screen.
Your character in the film, Mary Jackson, is smart, independent, and she’s not afraid to speak out—a lot like the Janelle Monáe listeners have come to know. What do you feel that you share with Mary?
Being the youngest in that trio, she represented a new generation of women. Just like my generation now, Mary wasn’t going to sit back and allow anyone to discriminate against her because of the color of her skin or because of her gender. Mary and I both use the word “justice” a lot.
Now that you’re in two films receiving Oscar buzz, will we see you in more acting roles?
It really depends on the story being told. It has to have something to say and the potential for cultural impact. It’s about pushing forward new stories, untold stories, universal stories.
Your third album, The Electric Lady, came out in 2013. Are you thinking about album number four?
Of course. Living as an American today, there’s so much to say. There’s so much commentary. I have material for days.
How long did it take before Taraji’s inner Cookie Lyon emerged and asked you to do a guest shot on Empire?
(Laughs.) I love Cookie Lyon, and I love Taraji. Anything she needs from me, I’m there!
Hidden Figures was shot here in your hometown. What was that like?
Atlanta is home to me. I’m originally from Kansas, and I like to say that Kansas raised me but Atlanta turned me into a young woman. This is where I started my career. This is where my roots are as an artist. I was excited to have Octavia and Taraji come into my world. It was a real celebration. None of us could believe we were a part of this historic project and that we were going to be playing black women in a way that we hadn’t seen before. We hadn’t seen ourselves on screen as these brilliant minded mathematicians and scientists.
There’s a scene in the film where your car has broken down and a white racist police officer comes up and begins asking for identification. Was that difficult to shoot?
It was heavy. I had to ask myself, “How am I going to respond to this man pulling us over?” How would these women have responded back then? How would Janelle Monáe have responded in the 1960s? The Janelle Monáe today would have been upset, and the police officer definitely would have known that. But back then, black people were getting lynched for speaking out against injustice. I had to take all of that into consideration. As three women in that moment, we had to calibrate our response.
Mary speaks to the reality of women in the workplace when she says, “We go from being our father’s daughters to our husband’s wives to our babies’ mothers. Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” How did that line resonate for you in 2016?
I don’t have children, but I have many friends who are mothers and they’re women who are juggling a lot. For Mary back then, it was a moment when she could vent about always feeling the need to be something to someone else. It’s a girl moment that we all have, and it’s something that you don’t see played out in most motion pictures.
Many people of color have criticized Hollywood for producing a steady stream of slave movies in the past few years, including 2016’s The Birth of a Nation. As a role model for young people, was it important for you to be a part of telling a different kind of story?
I wanted to honor these women. They’re pioneers. These are women who changed the world, American heroes. But because of historical circumstances, their stories were never told. We all felt a responsibility to these women who opened up doors for my generation.
A Timeline of Trailblazers
In 1969 three black women—now the subject of Hidden Figures—performed the calculations that launched Apollo 11 into space. But they weren’t the only prominent women of color in the STEM fields. —Tess Malone
1864 Rebecca Lee Crumpler graduates with a medical degree from New England Female Medical College, becoming the country’s first black female physician.
1878 Mary Mahoney is accepted into nursing school. A year later, she becomes the first black professional nurse in the U.S.
1885 Sarah E. Goode, a former slave, is the first black woman to receive a patent—for her folding cabinet bed.
1897 Eliza A. Grier, a former slave, is granted a medical license in Georgia. She is first black female doctor licensed to practice in the state.
1916 The first black research chemist at the University of Hawaii, Alice Ball, develops a treatment for leprosy that was used until the 1940s.
1921 Bessie Coleman earns her international pilot’s license, becoming the first black woman to take to the skies.
1947 Marie M. Daly completes a Ph.D. in chemistry, the first black woman to do so. In the 1950s her groundbreaking research showed the connection between high cholesterol and clogged arteries.
1981 Alexa Canady becomes the first black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
1986 The country’s first black female resident in ophthalmology, Patricia Bath, invents the Laserphaco Probe, a device to improve treatment of cataracts.
1992 Astronaut Mae C. Jemison flies aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, becoming the first black woman in space.
1993 President Bill Clinton appoints Joycelyn Elders U.S. Surgeon General, making her the first black woman to hold the post.
2010 Ursula Burns named CEO of Xerox. She is the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
2011 Engineer Kimberly Bryant founds Black Girls Code, a nonprofit focused on introducing girls of color to computer programming.