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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

Janelle Monae: Now is Not the Time for Complacency on Racial Matters

LOS ANGELES – Weary, angry, frustrated but also somewhat hopeful. Those four adjectives sum up African-American singer, songwriter and actress Janelle Monae’s feelings on the struggle against racism in the United States, a topic at the heart of the new psychological horror film “Antebellum.”

Known for her critically acclaimed 2010 debut album “The ArchAndroid” and also for her work on two other films that tackle the subject of racism – “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” –, the 34-year-old Monae plays a prominent author who is abducted and enslaved via time travel on a southern plantation in “Antebellum,” which is directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz and will be available on streaming services in the US starting Friday.

In an interview with EFE just four days after the Aug. 23 police-involved shooting of an African-American man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Monae said there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about tackling racial injustice.

How are you holding up in this very difficult year?

That’s a pretty heavy question. It’s hard for me to answer right now. I’m sorry. It’s a lot of unrest, and you know being black here in America you’re walking a tightrope: if you lean too left, you can become infuriated, and you don’t want to lean too right and become delusional.

So I’m trying to walk that fine line as I speak to you and I have to speak about this film and deal with my emotions around my people being killed every single day just because of the color of their skin.

We’ve seen you in dramatic films about racism, but “Antebellum” takes a different approach: it’s a horror film. How is this genre useful in talking about racism?

When you think about black people living in America, there is no horrific act other than slavery. I’m here not because I asked to be in America, but because my ancestors were stolen and brought over here. We’re not immigrants. We didn’t migrate willingly.

So I don’t know anything else as horrific when it comes to black history. There are things that have happened, but that was the beginning. That was the original sin of this country.

This type of film can reach a global audience, and perhaps there are people in other parts of the world who aren’t familiar with US history. Could you explain the connection between slavery (in the US South) prior to the Civil War and racism today in the US?

Well, I think if you are white and you don’t know this, you need to use Google. You need to do that research. As a black woman, I don’t want to do the emotional labor of going through what happened. I’m asking that people do the work and the homework. That is how we’re going to dismantle systemic racism. That is how we’re going to dismantle white supremacy.

In this film, I am portraying a black woman who is an author and who is trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the past, the present and the future, and she has to do all of this before it’s too late.

You’ve said it was very important for you to have conversations with the white cast and crew of the film about racial matters.

It was an honor to work with this cast, from Jack Huston to Jena Malone to Lily (Cowles) to Gabourey Sidibe to Eric Lange to Kiersey Clemons … I mean to me it was like a stellar cast from so many different walks of life.

And for me, I wanted to know specifically with the white actors where they stood on white supremacy, where they stood on systemic racism, where they stood on protecting black lives. And I was happy to find their answers and have their allyship, and they took on these roles because they wanted to confront even their own ancestry. I won’t name who, but one of the characters in real life they found out – this is no surprise to me – that one of their ancestors was a slave owner. And not so distant. I think it was like great-great-grandfather. And so hearing that, and seeing the tears in their eyes and hearing them say how they just had to confront that, was important.

A portion of the film was shot on an old slave plantation.

Yeah, we filmed in New Orleans. I think we filmed on the same plantation where “Django (Unchained)” was shot. And being a descendant of enslaved people, I could feel their presence. I could feel their spirits, and every time I would set foot on that plantation, they helped me walk. They helped me talk. They helped me fight. They helped me plan. They helped me cry. I just felt them guiding me.

After what’s happened in recent months, where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement going?

Listen, I think that this film and the reason why I’m on this call with you today is because we have to keep the conversation going. It can’t be business as usual. It can’t be, oh let me go back shopping, or oh let me just go watch basketball, oh let me go watch football. Let me go… No, no, no, no, no. We have a real problem and we’ve always had this problem.

And if we get lazy about this election. If we continue to empower Donald Trump and the Republican administration, we will continue to support racist policies, racist ideology. We will continue to embolden white supremacists. We will continue to put black lives and marginalized people in harm every single day.


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