Janelle Monae Antebellum

“It was important that it felt like an opening you hadn’t seen from the Oscars before. And that it also gave love to the films that were not nominated, that I even thought were going to be nominated, but that were not. And that highlighted those marginalized voices in our community,” she said. “And it had to feel fun.”

The Oscars opening launched a very big year for Janelle Monáe, which continued with her starring role in the second season of the Amazon series Homecoming.  When I noted that the first season starred Julia Roberts, who was the biggest star in the world when Monáe was growing up, she saw where I was going and rerouted me.

“I’m not replacing Julia Roberts,” she said. “Nobody can replace Julia Roberts.”

Antebellum is, improbably, her first lead role on film. If it continues horror’s recent habit of far outpacing expectations, the film could be huge for her already massive career. Monáe, whose Wondaland Pictures made a first-look production deal with Universal Pictures in 2018, could be helping to set Hollywood’s agenda for years to come.

But Monáe has bigger aspirations than movie stardom. She wants to correct the historical record, one role at a time.

In 2016 she was deeply empathetic in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Picture, then embarked on several historical roles: She starred in Hidden Figures as NASA engineer Mary Jackson, one of three Black women who never got their proper due, prior to Hidden Figures, for their roles in the early success of the American space program. (The film also starred Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer as NASA mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, respectively.) Then, in 2019, she played boarding-house owner Marie Buchanon, a fictional character in Harriet who helps dramatize the stunning struggles and victories of the real Harriet Tubman, who freed dozens of people from slavery at almost unfathomable danger to herself.

Janelle Monáe Antebellum

Janelle Monáe in Antebellum. All photos by Matt Kennedy, courtesy of Lionsgate.

Antebellum returns again to slavery, a subject America may finally be ready to confront honestly. Years of denial have been abetted by Hollywood propaganda going back to one of the first hit movies, Birth of a Nation. A debate rages this summer about how to address Gone with the Wind and its grotesquely sunny portrayals of slavery.

Antebellum was originally supposed to be released in April 2020, but was pushed because of COVID-19. Its delay may be one of the very few positive results of the pandemic, because Antebellum is now positioned to arrive at a time when Americans, led by Black Lives Matter, are dismantling relics of the Confederacy, confessing to racial sins, and studying parts of history we once tried to bury.

Gabourey Sidibe

Janelle Monáe and Gabourey Sidibe in Antebellum. Photo by Matt Kennedy.

The film’s co-directors and writers, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, have carefully protected plot details of the film, knowing that horror films especially are better the less you know going in. But they did provide a statement disclosing that in addition to playing Veronica, Monáe also takes on another role.

“Janelle’s stoicism camouflages a furnace burning deep within her spirit,” they said. “It is a very specific quality that can’t be learned or bought; it’s a presence. Veronica/Eden are essentially two characters housing similar attributes, which lend themselves beautifully to Janelle’s particulate energy.”

Also read: Mark Wahlberg Tries to Make Amends in Good Joe Bell, From Brokeback Mountain Writers

What we do know is that the film shifts back and forth from the modern era to the Antebellum one, the era before the Civil War when the white South’s wealth was built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people.

“Gerard had expressed to me that this film and story were inspired by a dream he had, with his ancestor,” Monáe said. “And I’ve been communicated to in my dreams. I’ve said this in many interviews, but a lot of my music, melodies, and songs come to me while I’ve been dreaming. I’ve had to wake up in the middle of the night.

“So I understood what that meant, to have your ancestors seed their visions and dreams in you. Right? And what was clear is that the past was speaking to us, and reminding us of the connection that the past has with the present, and now the present will inform the future.

“These are things that we may know, but things that we can’t forget. And I think more than ever, we cannot forget history. We cannot forget some of the events that have shaped this country and shape this world. And this film to me serves as a reminder of what’s at stake. And a reminder of the superheroes — the Black women in this movement to bring awareness for marginalized voices.”

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She names a few of the women who inspired her role: Congresswoman Maxine Waters, as well as the members of The Squad who joined her in Congress in 2018 (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib), plus former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and attorney Angela Tye, with whom Monáe has tried to rally new voters.

“I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to honor these brave and heroic women who put their lives on the line every single day,” Monáe says.

Later in our conversation, she names these women again. So no one forgets.

Antebellum, starring Janelle Monáe, is available on demand this Friday.

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