Mak­ing movies that mean some­thing to peo­ple

Janelle Monae shines as both her films get Os­car nods

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - NEKESA MUMBI MOODY

NEW YORK — The jour­ney from pop star to se­ri­ous thes­pian is lit­tered with ca­su­al­ties. For ev­ery Justin Tim­ber­lake, there are big-name hit­mak­ers whose movie ca­reers have stalled with du­bi­ous and dis­ap­point­ing re­sults.

Which is just one rea­son why Janelle Monae’s mag­i­cal movie ride is so note­wor­thy. The Grammy-nom­i­nated per­former made her act­ing de­but last year with two films — and both are nom­i­nated for best pic­ture at Sun­day’s Academy Awards.

She first wowed crit­ics in her small but piv­otal role in “Moon­light” as Teresa, the nur­tur­ing girl­friend of a drug dealer who be­friends an in­tro­verted, im­pov­er­ished boy who senses he is dif­fer­ent.

But her big­gest break­out would come with “Hid­den Fig­ures,” por­tray­ing one of three pi­o­neer­ing black women at NASA whose con­tri­bu­tions to the space race were crit­i­cal, but over­looked by his­tory. As en­gi­neer Mary Jack­son, Monae shows a depth and range that wowed crit­ics and proved she could hold her own along a star-stud­ded cast.

Though Monae may be one of the big­gest sur­prises of the Os­car sea­son, the 31-year-old sees her act­ing as­cen­sion as part of her nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion as an artist (she stud­ied act­ing for years).

“I al­ways did both, and I con­sider my­self not just an ac­tor or a mu­si­cian or singer, but an artist-sto­ry­teller, and my hope is to con­tinue to tell un­told, unique uni­ver­sal sto­ries in un­for­get­table ways,” said Monae in an in­ter­view.

Monae’s ca­reer so far has cer­tainly been un­for­get­table.

Her al­bums — a cap­ti­vat­ing mix of funk, psy­che­delic soul, R&B and pop — have been crit­i­cally lauded, and her elec­tric stage pres­ence re­calls James Brown or Prince, who was a close friend and men­tor. She’s a CoverGirl spokesper­son and a fash­ion muse known for her eclec­tic style.

Space per­me­ated Monae’s artis­tic world long be­fore “Hid­den Fig­ures” — her al­ter ego was a fu­tur­is­tic an­droid Cindi May­weather, and on her last al­bum, she paid trib­ute to Sally Ride, the first Amer­i­can wo­man to travel in space.

“I’ve been ob­sessed with space and sci-fi. I was ob­sessed and still am with Mae Jemi­son,” she said of the first black wo­man in space.

And yet Monae was un­aware of the story of Jack­son or the other cen­tral char­ac­ters in “Hid­den Fig­ures,” based on Mar­got Lee Shet­terly’s book of the same name.

Jack­son was one of the black fe­male “hu­man com­put­ers” work­ing for NASA in the seg­re­gated South; while the main char­ac­ter, Kather­ine John­son (played by Taraji P. Hen­son) was re­spon­si­ble for the math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula that launched John Glenn into or­bit, Jack­son pe­ti­tioned and won her case to study en­gi­neer­ing at an all-white school to fur­ther her ca­reer at NASA.

“I thought it was a fic­ti­tious story,” she said. “Once I found out that these women in fact did ex­ist, and they did con­trib­ute to the space race and were an in­te­gral part of help­ing us win the space race, I wanted to make sure that no other young boy or girl or Amer­i­can, hu­man be­ing, went through life with­out know­ing these phe­nom­e­nal, bril­liant-minded women.”

Monae cared so deeply about both films that she took a break from record­ing to de­vote her­self to them. “I felt like these movies are big­ger than me; it was for hu­man­ity. These movies bring peo­ple to­gether.”

Monae’s ad­vo­cacy also spills out­side her art. She was one of the per­form­ers at the Women’s March in Wash­ing­ton a month ago, and has been out­spo­ken in her sup­port of gay rights, Black Lives Mat­ter and other causes.

“Hid­den Fugures” di­rec­tor Theodore Melfi ex­pects that sin­cer­ity to be present in Monae as she nav­i­gates her way through Hol­ly­wood.

“I don’t think you’re go­ing to see some­one who does a fluff movie,” he said. “I think she’s go­ing to do movies that mean some­thing to peo­ple and that can help shine a light on some­one who’s suf­fered an in­jus­tice or some kind of movie that builds faith or builds char­ac­ter.”


Janelle Monae stars as Mary Jack­son in “Hid­den Fig­ures.”


Janelle Monae plays Teresa in “Moon­light.”

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