Ever since Janelle Monáe’s breakout success changed the alternative R&B music scene, her career has rapidly evolved to reveal her many talents in the world of performance. Not only has Monáe successfully produced a number of captivating albums — including the Grammy Award-nominated Dirty Computer (2018) — but she has also proven that she has the chops for acting and is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s finest talents.
Monáe has a role in the upcoming film Knives Out 2, which will premiere in 2022. Her track “Turntables,” which appeared in the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, was shortlisted for the Best Original Song Academy Award at the 2021 Oscars. Before you sit down to watch or listen, though, take a look back at some of the iconic roles from her evolving silver screen career.
Teresa, “Moonlight” (2016)
From the moment that Moonlight hit theaters, the coming-of-age narrative captivated audiences with a kind of love story that often doesn’t make it to the big screen. Queer, Black and unapologetic, the trailblazing film not only won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first LGBTQ+ film of its kind to do so — but was also the first film with an all-Black cast to secure the award. Monáe plays the role of Teresa, who serves as a motherly figure for the young protagonist, Chiron, as he navigates his overlapping identities.
Monáe’s performance is as tender as it is striking. Many of her moments of silent guidance serve as the most powerful in her handful of scenes. Although she doesn’t spend much time on screen, her charisma and grace make her time in front of the camera innately captivating. Her gentle presence, coupled with her comforting delivery of dialogue, highlights the importance of nurturing children like Chiron as they grow into themselves.
Of Monáe’s debut film performance, Emily J. Lordi from Pitchfork said, “Moonlight reminds us that the ‘fight’ is waged not only through spectacles of Black protest and excellence but also through intimate forms of Black love: gaze, touch, laughter, gesture. Monáe’s android alter ego sometimes masks these secret signs, but they have always sounded through the meticulous dream-worlds of her music.” Put simply, Monáe is just as much a pro at non-verbal communication as she is in conveying emotions through song.
Mary Jackson, “Hidden Figures” (2016)
Hidden Figures is based on the untold story of three Black female NASA workers who spearheaded U.S. efforts to get men on the moon in the 1960s. In the film, Monáe plays the part of Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female Black engineer. Jackson’s savvy and sharp-witted personality is brought to life by Monáe, whose assertive attitude is matched only by her ferocity for change and justice.
Of Hidden Figures, Brian Truitt of USA Today shared, “The film’s big breakout is Monáe, the Grammy-winning musician who impressed in a small role in Moonlight but showcases a wealth of talent as the youngest and most opinionated of the three main women. Mary is both genius and social activist, and her personality reflects a generation’s aggressive movement toward real change in the ’60s.”
Throughout her passionate performance, Monáe manages to encapsulate both the frustrations of being Black in the Jim Crow-era and the brilliance of Black achievement in a time when all odds were stacked against Black women. One of the film’s most powerful scenes features Monáe petitioning a judge to be able to take classes at an all-white school. When she’s granted the right to attend night classes, she screams on the courtyard steps from the thrill. The pure excitement of Monáe’s performance is palpable.
About this scene, Loey Lockerby at The Kansas City Star noted, “The big surprise is Monáe… Mary is the most outspoken character, and Monáe deftly portrays the tension between her natural confidence and the fear that it won’t be enough. The scene where she manipulates the judge in her school-access case is worth the price of admission.”
Marie Buchanon, “Harriet” (2019)
Although Harriet Tubman is one of the most significant figures in American history, her life hadn’t been highlighted in a feature film until last year. Harriet is an impassioned glimpse into Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo) escape from her slaveholders that also examines how she facilitated the rescue of more slaves after gaining her own freedom. In the film, Monáe plays Mary Buchanon, a Northern woman who runs the boarding house where Tubman lives after fleeing the South.
Monáe perfectly captures the struggles — both internal and external — of a Black woman born into freedom during a the era of slavery. Through her gripping performance and her engaging onscreen dynamic with Erivo, Monáe untangles a web of emotional and generational trauma in real-time. Although Buchanon’s character arc is ultimately tragic, Monáe’s empowering exchanges with Erivo radiate an energetic momentum throughout the course of the film.
Of Monáe’s performance, Kimberly Pierce at Geek Girl Authority said, “Continuing with the glowing praise as it relates to casting, the combination of Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. [is] so good in this movie, I can’t stand it… Monáe is just… fabulous. That is all that can be said. It is her world, and we’re all just living in it.”
Alex, “Homecoming” (2020)
The Amazon series Homecoming is thrilling for a number of reasons — the latest being its centering of Janelle Monáe as the second-season lead. Her character, a military veteran named Alex, regains consciousness on a rowboat with zero recollection of her life or identity. The season then unfurls the events of her past to expose the frightening source of her memory loss.
Monáe’s acting brings the character’s utter confusion to life, and even the most predictable spins on the narrative feel fresh with her presence. Monáe schooled herself on memory loss before she took on the role, which helped her bring even more authenticity to Alex’s situation. Her ability to portray trauma onscreen — hypervigilance, emotional shifts, confusion and trouble processing her surroundings — helps maintain the show’s eerie nature and adds to the psychological tension of every episode.
According to Ellen E. Jones from The Guardian, “Homecoming‘s got style for days, then, but there’s substance here too. Monáe, in common with first-season star Stephan James, has a face that can flicker between strength and vulnerability in an instant. It’s utilised to contrast the overwhelming might of the U.S.’s military-industrial complex with the tragic vulnerability of individual vets.” In the psychologically unnerving atmosphere of the show, Monáe navigates Alex’s complex emotional landscape with a riveting, realistic performance.
Jane 57821, “Dirty Computer [Emotion Pixture]”
Short films are often criminally overlooked in terms of artistic merit. The lack of a gargantuan budget or a 90-minute runtime doesn’t make a project any less imactful. The 49-minute short film that accompanies Dirty Computer perfectly reiterates this point. Surreal sci-fi visuals blend with hip-hop and neo soul soundscapes to create a genuinely one of a kind experience.
Monáe teamed with Alan Ferguson, Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning, Emma Westenberg and Lacey Duke to conceive this ambitious project. She also enlisted the aid of Tessa Thompson (of Creed and Thor: Ragnarok fame, Jayson Aaron (from the short film Gentrify Me), and dozens of talented cast and crew members. The end result is a cerebral narrative that deftly compliments the entire Dirty Computer album.
Tim Grierson of Rolling Stone spoke highly of this short film in a 2018 article, lauding it as an “emotional, feminist updating of the dystopian concerns that have always swirled through science fiction.” We won’t spoil the harrowing narrative of this 49-minute short film for. Instead, we urge you to personally experience it and meditate on its messages of love, acceptance, and individuality.