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After Pop Music, Janelle Monae Reinvents What It Means to Be an Oscar Contender

In best picture contender "Moonlight," Monae plays the surrogate mother to a young gay boy.

Fran Tirado

Photos courtesy of A24

It sounds trite to describe what Janelle Monae is wearing to the interview for her first film Moonlight, one of the contenders for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but her outfit speaks to her larger message.

She wears metallic silver pumps (to match her nails and assortment of rings), which poke out from under a black tulle skirt, and her hair is curled and parted to the side. Over an old Bowie t-shirt, she has thrown an oversize leather jacket laden with silver stud patterns. The back of the jacket reads in big, white letters: "BLACK GIRL MAGIC."

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The whole outfit, of course, is black. Monae has stuck to a monochromatic uniform for several years—a tribute to the uniforms of her mother, who worked as a janitor, and her father, who drove a garbage truck. Her black-and-white ensembles speak to the efforts of the working class, now a part of Monae's style both as a pop star and an actress.

Monae plays Teresa, a mentor and mother figure for Moonlight's protagonist, a young black boy named Chiron who comes to realize his sexuality over the course of about 16 years. She meets Chiron at the start of the movie after her boyfriend, a drug dealer named Juan, finds him on the wrong side of town. He rescues Chiron from a crack den, but Chiron refuses to speak. Juan takes him home to Teresa, and she appeals to Chiron's latent feminine side and gets Chiron to talk. Throughout the movie, Teresa becomes a major source of support as he copes with his mom's crack addiction and getting bullied at school in a gritty, predominantly African-American South Florida neighborhood.

"When I read the script [for Moonlight], I cried," Monae says. "I knew so many people in my life and in my community who were like Chiron."

She grew up in one of the poorest sections of Kansas City, Kansas. "I didn't know I was poor of course," she says. "I had a very loving family, a loving upbringing. But it had a darker side too. I had people in my family who battled crack addiction. I know what it's like to be living in a house with someone who's on crack."

Scenes between Teresa and Chiron echo conversations that Monae once had with cousins and other family members. "All the characters, I felt, I had had a run-in or personal relationship with in my life," she says. "I had a Teresa."

Monae's own Teresa was an auntie who would give counseling, or comfort, to both Monae and her troubled cousins. The singer and actress hypothesizes that everyone has a Teresa in their life. "[Teresa] was there to not judge him, and just be a shoulder for him to lean on," she says. "Teresa is also me. I am Teresa."

Monae finds great importance in how Moonlight presents typically stereotyped characters with complexity and nuance. In any other film, someone like Teresa's boyfriend, a kind and understanding drug dealer, or Chiron's mom Paula, a homophobic crack addict, might be demonized.

"These are real people who are nuanced and layered," Monae says. "It's important that humanity understands why someone makes the choices they make instead of rushing to conclusions."

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"I had cousins and people in my life who sold drugs," she says. "But these people also gave mentorship to young boys in the community. These are humans. These are real people that care—and I'm so happy that their stories are being portrayed honestly." Thanks to its deeply felt characters, Monae believes Moonlight presents a story that anyone will find relatable: "Those who have no encounter with people like this will be able to empathize with a crackhead or a drug dealer."

Oppressed groups have a documented history in Monae's artistic output. Her concept albums tell the story of the "androids," a symbol for subjugated communities and outcasts, like "African-American women, women, emigrants, the excommunicated, the black man, the LGBTQ community," she says. She has recited the names of victims of police brutality in her song "Hell You Talmbout" and marched for Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia.

"As a black woman, I'm supportive of speaking out against injustices that are done not just to black women, but black men," she says.

She hopes Moonlight will raise awareness of men's roles in black communities. "I don't see a black man being gay separate from being a black man, period. When we say 'black lives matter,' LGBTQ black lives are also in that," she says. Moonlight, she feels, was written for one distinct purpose: "So that you don't feel alone."

"Loneliness leads to giving up," Monae says. She views it as the root of oppression, subjugation, and fear. "I just want anyone who is afraid and lonely to choose freedom over fear."

Monae once said in an Instagram caption, "They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves." When I ask her what she considers the question of this film, she struggles to give a response.

"I've seen it four times, and I still have unanswered questions—I think that's very intentional," she says. "I don't think this film is meant to have an answer. I think it's meant to move the audience, and force them to ask themselves some questions."