If you know Janelle Monae, you know her as a high-energy, Afro-futuristic musician. Others recognize her as an “easy, breezy, beautiful” Covergirl. This winter, however, everyone will know this Kansas City, Kan., native as an actress as she stars in “Hidden Figures,” which opens in Kansas City Friday on the heels of a supporting turn in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
The film, her first major role, pinpoints the secret to America’s success in the space race: a group of black women, known as “computers,” who served as the brains behind many of NASA’s early successes. It’s a story, Monae said, that made her emotional when she first read the script.
“I cried … because I had never heard of Katherine Johnson or Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson or any of the colored computers who worked at NASA,” she said. “These are true American heroes; they made America great again. How could they not be mentioned (in history)? I’m appalled, outraged.
“But I’m also excited that we finally get to see a different side of black women. We get to see us as brilliant-minded mathematicians who are necessary to the culture.”
“Hidden Figures,” adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, highlights the contributions of the black women who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which would become NASA) through the mid- to late 1970s. At the center of the story are Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Monae’s Mary Jackson, who, along with other black women, overcome sexism and racism to become integral members of the organization.
For Monae, the role was an opportunity to return to her roots. In addition to the movie filming at the historically black, all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta — where she often performed before being discovered by Sean “Diddy” Combs in 2006 — she was able to flex the acting chops she sharpened at the American Music and Dramatic Academy.
Granted, she has always considered herself “an artist-storyteller who wants to tell unique, untold, universal stories in unforgettable ways.” But “Hidden Figures” is the 31-year-old’s chance to take some of the ideals championed in her music — namely, women’s rights and sisterhood — and transpose them to film.
This film “empowers us, inspires us that no matter what sexism or setback we experience because we are women, we can prevail,” she said. “When we stick together we can change the world. We sent a man into space!”
The onscreen sisterhood spilled offscreen as Spencer and Henson became “big sisters” to Monae, with the trio holding potlucks at their homes by filming’s end. Monae admits that being opposite Oscar-caliber actresses was daunting.
“They told me: ‘I believe in you. I’m excited about this role for you. This is your year,’ ” Monae said. “And there’s nothing like your heroes affirming you.”
“Moonlight” director Jenkins also praised Monae, noting that he didn’t expect the “space-age musician” to be the “wholesome Earth mama” he wanted for the role. But after a Skype session where the two got to know each other, he was convinced she was perfect. On set, she didn’t allow her newness to overwhelm her, he said. In fact, “I could see that she was watching Mahershala (Ali, who plays her boyfriend in the film) and learning things and quickly applying them.
“That’s when I knew she knew what she was doing,” he said. “And even if she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she knows how to be, and that’s more, if not most, important.”
Theodore Melfi, director of “Hidden Figures,” calls Monae “a force of nature (that’s) just so alive and on fire for life.” He credited her approach to music for her apt skills as an actress.
“It’s very similar to how an actor approaches a role,” he said. “She creates an entire world for herself, interior and exterior, and that’s what an actor does.”
As for what audiences might take away from the film, Monae quotes a line from her character that she hopes moviegoers — and the broader entertainment industry — will remember: “Every time we try to move ahead, they move the finish line.”
“I want those in the position of power to stop making it hard for us to have opportunities,” she said. “We’re here. We’re ready. We can do the work. Hell, we birthed this entire nation! We have to hire more women. I’m ready to femme the future, and by that I mean creating more opportunities for women, especially women of color, in music, film, TV and entertainment. It’s going to be so important that we don’t make it hard; don’t move the finish line.”