Making movies that mean something to people
Janelle Monae shines as both her films get Oscar nods
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.”