Janelle Monáe's Film 'Antebellum' Shows the Horrors of Systemic Racism and White Supremacy

CUL_PS_Janelle Monae
Danielle Levitt

"There's never a wrong time to continue the conversation around what it means to be a Black woman living in America today."

In a year where it seems like every facet of life is going through a massive shift, musician and actor Janelle Monáe is front and center as a voice for that change, especially in her new film Antebellum, available on-demand on major cable and digital platforms September 18. "I want this to be a real look at the burden that Black women carry every single day to deconstruct systemic racism and to deconstruct white supremacy."

Monáe plays Veronica Henley, a successful writer trapped in a terrifying reality mirroring America's original sin: slavery. "One of the things that this film says is that the past is not even the past." While Monáe is best known as a Grammy-nominated music star, she hit the ground running with her first two films: Hidden Figures and Moonlight, winner of an Oscar for Best Picture. She says she's grateful those films were her debut. "They had a very specific perspective around the Black experience and about broadening who we can be as a people." After Antebellum, "community and being a good citizen is what I'm focused on next," says Monáe. Edited excerpts:

How did Antebellum come to you?

I needed to take a bath, and I was like, "Okay, let me read the script." I found myself in the tub for about three hours. There were so many turns in the script; just when I thought I knew what kind of film it was going to be, it morphed into something else.

In what ways do you think the film reflects the current moment?

This film mirrors a lot of what we are dealing with today. I think that themes of systemic racism, racial injustice, micro-aggressions, white supremacy and the burden that Black woman have to carry is at the center of our lives, of my life and of this film. I feel like we're in a fight right now: we're in a fight for our health—dealing with COVID-19—in a fight for protection against police brutality, and when you're in a fight, it's going to be uncomfortable. This discomfort that we're feeling is a part of everyone's reality now, and we can't shy away from it. One of the things that this film says is that the past is not even the past.

How do you think the film shows why it's important to remove symbols of the Confederacy?

We have to be able to connect the history and what was done to Black people, and people will have to confront what their ancestors did. These statues represent pain for the Black community. The flag represents pain, torture. It represents horror. In order for us to deconstruct systemic racism and white supremacy, we have to deal with them, we have to confront them; we have to sit in the discomfort because real change requires an upsetting, a rerouting, a real honest look at ourselves. After watching this film, everybody's gonna have a mirror that they'll have to look in. You should analyze your reflection and what it represents. And what your values represent. And what your silence represents.

What do you ultimately hope people take from this film?

I want this to be a real look at the burden that Black women carry every single day to deconstruct systemic racism and to deconstruct white supremacy every day. You won't be able to empathize or fight or be a better ally until you understand what that feels like. I think this film does that. Certain people will see themselves in this film; they'll see their cousins or their aunts. Depending on which side of the coin you stand, you're going to be given a decision, because right now we're in the middle of a rising. We're in the middle of a revolution. We're in the middle of a reckoning. And there's never a wrong time to continue the conversation around what it means to be a Black woman living in America today.

Was acting always on the horizon for you?

I grew up acting in school, I would do monologue competitions. I grew up in the arts. I wanted to explore more characters that I felt were most like myself. Art and acting have been very healing for me. It's always about which was going to be the right role for me. I'm just thankful that it was Moonlight and it was Hidden Figures because those are two stories that were outliers that year. They had a very specific perspective around the Black experience and about broadening who we can be as a people.

Do you approach a role similar to how you approach new music?

It depends. Sometimes I just write songs specifically for therapy, and I don't share them with anybody. Then I write music where it's just so honest, I need to get it out. With music, I have the autonomy to kind of do it at my own pace. I think when I'm working on a film, I'm with production, a group of folks, and we're all trying to tell a story and do what's best for the film.

You've done so much already over the course of your short career. What's something you haven't done that you're dying to do?

I feel like I'm just getting started. I'm always excited about trying new paints and new mediums and constantly evolving. I think community and being a good citizen is what I'm focused on next.

Janelle Monáe's Film 'Antebellum' Shows the Horrors of Systemic Racism and White Supremacy