Janelle Monáe has spent her career paving paths for archandroids and Django Janes, men, women, and otherwise defined people toppling the patriarchy and speaking truth to power. So, it makes sense that she would be part of the historic cinematic telling of Harriet Tubman’s life story, Harriet, in theaters Friday.
“Harriet Tubman is the original Django,” Monáe tells Out. “She is an American hero and she deserved to have her story told. I have been waiting on an opportunity to support it, and to be asked to play a character in her story was an honor.”
Monáe, who first made her filmic bow in 2016 with the award-winning Moonlight and Hidden Figures, has been taking Hollywood by storm ever since. After spell-binding the people with Dirty Computer — the album and the cinematic visual — she starred in Welcome to Marwen, voiced a character in UglyDolls, and landed roles in the Lady and the Tramp remake, and a Gloria Steinem biopic. She’s currently filming the second season of Amazon’s Homecoming after replacing Julia Roberts.
In Harriet, Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) plays the titular character charting Tubman’s life from slavery to freedom. Directed by the legendary Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), it also stars Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America), and Omar J. Dorsey (Queen Sugar) among others. Monáe plays Marie Buchanon, a Black woman born free who teaches Tubman how to arm herself on her journey to free other enslaved persons. The character, Monáe said, is “an amalgamation of historical figures and the women who did help women like Harriet come to the North and make a better life for themselves.”
“I felt like this was the right time to tell [Harriet Tubman] story even though I wish it would've happened decades ago,” she said. “We need her and we need a reminder in the context of our history and American history and what happened and where we are now.”
Ahead of the film’s Los Angeles premiere, Out spoke with Monáe about the movie — which is the first time Tubman’s story has been told on this scale — how it’s impacted her advocacy and allyship, and why she’s chosen the acting roles that she has.
How aware were you of some of the peculiarities of Harriet Tubman's story as well as the type of people that you play in the film, men and women, who helped house and teach newly freed persons?
Like a lot of us, we heard her name and we knew that she freed a lot of enslaved people. But I think I didn't really understand the network and how it happened. I know the Underground Railroad, where there was a group of allies and people working together to free so many of our enslaved people, but I just didn't quite understand how they networked and how they worked together hand-in-hand. It was great to know that there were people like Marie Buchanon and William Still who would help our brothers and sisters get jobs and them feel like independent citizens. And that's what I love, because my character was [born into freedom] but she understood her privilege and she said, "Listen, it's still my duty to give back. I'm not free until everybody's free."
There’s a particularly tough scene that involves your character being confronted for helping Tubman. What was the entire filming process like, putting yourself into the shoes of our ancestors in that way?
Yeah, that was a difficult one for me to shoot. That was my first stab as an actor being attacked by an oppressor. It took up a lot of my mental and emotional space. I just remember being in meditation and prayer and just like, I just want my ancestors to come up out of this. Reduce me as the actor, as Janelle, and allow me to really, as much as I possibly can — because I know that I did not have to endure what they endured — embody what that would feel like.
Because I wanted people to feel with this movie and with my character in particular, to just understand what we, as women, as allies of each other, have to go through to protect each other. And I feel like this is just so on time because you're seeing a lot in the news. You're seeing how we are on social media, even having to protect each other and not just as women, but as human beings… There's always going to be obstacles. There is going to be pushback, hate mail. But it's making a lot of us more fearful than free.
As someone very active and vocal in terms of sociopolitical issues, how did being part of this story change you and impact your vantage point on activism and allyship?
I think it's just context. Once you get above a certain age — and they're not really teaching this in school — but the way that our schools don't really address the real, the rawness of slavery. They're trying to erase it already and they've been doing it for years… But right now we're still dealing with different forms of that. We're still dealing with patriarchy. We're still dealing with white supremacy. We're still dealing with white nationalists, and new ways of silencing us, and new ways of making us feel like our voices don't deserve to be heard because we could, should continue to remain the minority in the majority. And I think that what this film does is it just reminds us how not long ago this happened. It's like a constant reminder also about how far have we really come.
I first interviewed you a few years ago around the Moonlight, Hidden Figures moment, and that was kind of your entrance into Hollywood as an actress. With all the different roles you’ve had since then, how do they impact how you see the ways you want to move through the industry as an actress?
I love rebellious art. I love radical art and I think I'm just going to get even more radical. It just makes me want to keep pushing those stories to honor more folks in the LGBTQ community, honor Black woman, honor those voices that I get to talk to off-screen all the time. And the stories that I get to hear, but I don't see them represented and I know we're out there. But I'm really interested in radical art and art that maybe not a lot of people get it or love it but I feel it and I love it and I feel like it will resonate with the hearts and minds of the spirits that are absolutely supposed to resonate with and celebrate.
And to piggyback on the last question you asked me: so Marie was the person who takes in Harriet and so many other enslaved people who escaped. She helps them get a job. She lets them stay there for free and she helps them feel as competent as they can as independent, free citizens. Her relationship just mirrors what it means to be a great ally, and I think if we can really show that, "Hey, some of us may be more privileged than the next, but how we use our privilege will make all the difference,” it will determine a person living their lives in fear or living their life in freedom.