Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Photo credit Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Photo: Glen Wilson
Photo: Glen Wilson

EXCLUSIVE: Janelle Monáe helps bring ‘Harriet’ to the big screen

It is only fitting that Janelle Monáe has a memorable role in “Harriet,” the first-ever big-screen adaptation of Harriet Tubman’s life. Fans of Monáe’s music will instantly recognize how her role as Marie Buchanon, a free black woman who helps Harriet Tubman transition into life after slavery, mirrors the values of freedom and independence she celebrates in her own art, particularly in her music. For Monáe, who rose to stardom in Atlanta initially with OutKast’s Big Boi as a mentor, her role in “Harriet” was one she just could not turn down.
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“I’m a lover of Harriet Tubman like so many of us,” she said via telephone. “She is a great American hero and, for black women and for me in particular; she’s inspired a lot of us.”
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Tubman’s imprint on Monáe is visible in her music. Writer Charles Pulliam-Moore acknowledges that in his 2016 article, “How Janelle Monáe turned Harriet Tubman’s legacy into an Afrofuturist sci-fi epic.” Reflecting on the short film accompanying Monae’s Grammy-nominated single, “Many Moons” — from her 2008 debut EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) — for the newly shuttered news site, Splinter, Pulliam-Moore describes it as a story about blackness, American slavery and Harriet Tubman’s legacy.

Monáe is even more explicit about her connection to the icon in her single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” featuring Erykah Badu (from The Electric Lady, her second studio album released in 2013). In it, Monáe proclaims, “Well I’m gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman.”

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon and Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Photo credit Glen Wilson/Focus Features
Photo: For the AJC

“She’s always been a part of me and a part of my DNA,” Monáe added, “and when I got asked by Cynthia (Erivo, who stars as Harriet Tubman) and Kasi (Lemmons, Harriet’s director) to be involved in the film, and they told me [about] the character, and I read the script. I said, ‘Absolutely. These are two sisters working together to lead the revolution.’ It was a no brainer for me.”

As Marie Buchanon, the director of “Harriet,” Kasi Lemmons, says “Janelle is incredible. It’s incredible that Janelle came on. Her role, it’s a very key role, but it’s not a huge role, but she’s amazing in it. It’s a very important friendship and juxtaposition to me — she and Harriet — because I wanted to represent these complex relationships [between enslaved and free black people] and free women of color in the North.”
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While Marie Buchanon is not a historical figure, she is a very real representation of the many free black women in the North who assisted runaway slaves. When Harriet is in Philadelphia, it is Marie who gives her shelter, food and a good bath. Marie even helps her as she preps to go back South to lead others to freedom.

“In doing research, there were so many women, like Marie Buchanon, who you just don’t know about,” Monáe explained. “They were free and still said ‘I’m not free until everybody is free’…. I think you do get a glimpse of that with Marie [along] with the understanding of what she [and women like her] represented to Harriet at that time.”

That sense of women empowerment was evident in the making of the film itself with Lemmons directing, Debra Martin Chase producing and, of course, Erivo and Monáe in their roles. “I think my biggest joy was just seeing black women take this story to another level,” she admitted.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in the upcoming film "Harriet."
Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Over the years, Monáe has had a good track record for appearing in important films, especially those that elevate the African-American experience. “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, based on playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s own journey navigating his sexuality and identity, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and “Hidden Figures,” about the black women working for NASA who helped place the first man on the moon, was nominated for one.

“I’m just drawn to great storytelling, and it’s the icing on the cake when it can actually say something, when people can walk away with a message that makes them feel better about life and about humanity and figuring out ways that we can really work together,” she explained.

“Harriet” is no exception. Working on this film made Tubman an even greater giant to Monáe, and she hopes to audiences as well. “Just seeing Harriet come back and forth from rescuing all those folks, I was just like, ‘Wow, this is our Moses. She is our hero.’”

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