By Marcus Jones
September 15, 2020 at 01:30 PM EDT
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Janelle Monáe is keenly aware of the criticism a film like Antebellum is subject to. The thriller, which marks her first leading role in a film, sees her play author and activist Veronica Henley, a woman trapped on a plantation where she’s subject to the horrors of chattel slavery.

Touching on why she agreed to star in the movie during a Zoom call with EW in July for our latest digital cover story, the actress says “for me, this film does deal with the burden that black women carry every single day as we try to deconstruct white systemic racism.” Important too is that, while the camera tilts to show off every degree the illustrious Henley holds, giving a sense of her highbrow status in the normal world, Monáe notes “one of the things that [Veronica] advocates for is that we don't need to try to look white, or to appear like we're asking to be invited into white patriarchy. We should remain authentic in our blackness. We should dress how we want to dress, f--- respectability politics.”

Part of the myth that was sold along with the subjugation of enslaved people in America is that they were uneducated. “We need to be reminded that when our [African] ancestors were stolen, they didn't steal Black people who just wanted to be a slave. They didn't ask to be enslaved,” Monáe explains. “They stole teachers, they stole doctors, they stole nurses, they stole geniuses. They had real lives and dreams, and passions and were pillars in their communities.”

So when that continues today, as displayed in the film in various ways, including microaggressions similar to “Oh wow. You are very smart for a black person,” Monáe says she finds it particularly frustrating. “I would slap anybody who said that no matter where you come from. That's insulting.”

While those are some of the intended takeaways the actress hopes people find in Antebellum, the message may not be getting across given how the movie is arriving on a wave of decidedly mixed — in a few cases, sharply negative — critical reviews. (After initially being slated for a theatrical bow in April, the film's release plans changed due to the coronavirus pandemic and is now opening this Friday on VOD.) Monáe, however, knows she can’t control the misgivings audience members may have about the film, especially Black moviegoers. “This is not a slave movie, and this is not a white savior movie,” the actress declares. “Most of the films I’ve watched over the years that deal with this very evil system have predominantly been white savior films. I don't think that [they hold] white folks accountable in the way that they should. It absolves them.”

Plus for her, this is not the first time she has starred in a movie that has been accused of perpetuating those narratives. Hidden Figures was significant for Monáe to be a part of, in its accessible telling of a group of Black women who helped get astronauts into space, but the scene in which a NASA leader (played by Kevin Costner) hacks down a “colored” restroom sign was hit hard as a gratuitous white savior plot point. Same goes for Harriet last year, in which she played a small but crucial part: Some criticized a moment where Harriet Tubman’s former “master” kills a Black bounty hunter that was after her, feeling it served as a redemptive action for the slaveholder.

“Black people have the right to critique anything that's centered around the Black voice, and historical figures — especially Harriet,” Monáe asserts. “I'm not the filmmaker, I'm not the writer.” She pauses to consider whether or not to expand on the subject. “And I'll just leave it at that.”

As for reactions to Antebellum, once it reaches a wider audience? “It'll trigger people in general,” Monáe says. “Black folks deal with trauma in different ways. And I think that everybody is entitled to their opinion, even if I disagree or agree with it”.

This film, she argues, isn’t about “feeling better about ourselves because at the end, we got a chance to redeem ourselves,” as she phrases it. Antebellum can instead be “a mirror for those who are not committed to being anti-racist.”

“I really want white people to watch this film,” she says. “I hope [it shows] people who don't get why Black lives matter, who have benefited from these systems that have not been built for Black lives, [to] stop perpetuating the delusions of white supremacy globally.”

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