Historic Grammy nod, huge holiday film — Janelle Monae is Hollywood’s newest MVP
‘It’s time for us to have as much creative freedom as those who are privileged.’
Janelle Monae doesn’t have time to half-step. Her moves are thoughtfully calculated, and her choices are close to impeccable. The 33-year-old performer — because calling her a musician is far too limiting — has the golden touch, and she’s Hollywood’s newest MVP.
In the early part of 2017, Monae pulled and mastered double duty: her debut as an actor including co-starring in two Oscar-nominated films, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In both roles, she delivered breakthrough performances. Moonlight, of course, ended up besting Hidden for the Oscar that year, and when cinephiles look back on that moment years from now, they may question why Monae’s name wasn’t listed with other supporting women actors for Hollywood’s biggest award show.
“I like great storytelling,” said Monae. “And I like something that stitches closer … and redefines what it means to be young, black, wild and free. And I think it’s time to let the rest of the world know that as a black woman — making these albums and movies — there’s nothing you can’t do.” And, speaking of albums, in the early part of 2019, Monae is pulling double duty again.
Besides being nominated for the prestigious album of the year Grammy for her Dirty Computer, Monae is back on the silver screen with the new Welcome to Marwen, a film inspired by Jeff Malmberg’s acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol, which tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, a photographer who was nearly beaten to death in 2000 outside of a bar by five bigots after he shared with them that he was a cross-dresser.
Hogancamp spent nine days in a coma and 40 days in the hospital and even still was left with so much brain damage that he had very little memory of his previous life. Unable to pay for therapy, he built a World War II-era town in his backyard instead and filled it with dolls that represented his friends, himself and even the men who almost killed him. Monae portrays GI Julie, one of Hogancamp’s (played by Steve Carrell) makes.
“Reading the stories … the scripts, and watching the documentary,” is what Monae says sealed the deal for her to sign onto the fantasy co-written by Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis, who also directs. “I was blown away by the fact that people could hurt someone because of their walk in truth … The fact that he lost so much himself when he was carrying his trauma … was the story I wanted to make and [help] get told.”
Even if Welcome to Marwen isn’t acknowledged in Hollywood’s upcoming competitive awards season, it’ll be a heartwarming story that should do quite well at the box office. And the messaging, certainly, is as on brand for the performer as her third solo musical project.
Dirty Computer is her third studio effort and it’s the project she was working on when she received the scripts for Moonlight and for Hidden Figures. She ended up putting the album on hold until she completed those projects, but it was all for the best. The album was well-reviewed and critics considered the project as Janelle Monae at her most authentic. The album, which she says was a homage to women and the spectrum of sexual identities, peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. It’s a good time to be Janelle Monae.
She’s winning in both of her disciplines at the same time, and in some cases, able to excel on their highest stages. Quite a feat. “It’s really about taking on projects that are aligned with your person,” said Monae, who doesn’t hold back when speaking out on social media and in interviews against what’s happening with regard to race, politics or LGBTQ issues, or sharing news stories that speak to those dynamics. “Once you get those projects that are in your heart and are part of your person — if you know it — you make it happen and it seems effortless. It’s not that it’s not hard work, but … this is a part of my core values, this is a part of my responsibility.”
Monae is has been acting since she was in middle school and attended New York City’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy after high school before she dropped out, moved to Atlanta and made a full go at being a musician. Acting was always calling her though. She’d auditioned for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek before she even heard about Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.
“We’re not powerless,” she says. “And I do feel responsibility to give my all … help the next girl coming up … have creative control. I’m not interested in telling the same regurgitated story, playing the same characters over and over and over. It’s time for us to have as much creative freedom as those who are privileged.”