Janelle Monáe wasn’t made for these times – no wonder she’s always got her eye on the future. From an early age, she’s been a sci-fi/fantasy fan, grooving on The Twilight Zone and Star Wars as a kid. Yet for the 32-year-old musician and actress those genres have never been about escapism but, rather, a means to express how it feels to be an outcast. That’s partly the reason why she adopted the android persona Cindi Mayweather for her terrific early-2010s albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady: She’s not role-playing so much as she’s telling us who she really is.
“I chose an android because the android to me represents ‘the other’ in our society,” she said in 2010. “I can connect to the other, because it has so many parallels to my own life – just by being a female, African-American artist in today’s music industry. … Whether you’re called weird or different, all those things we do to make people uncomfortable with themselves, I’ve always tried to break out of those boundaries.”
In her dazzling new short film Dirty Computer, tied to her forthcoming album of the same name, Monáe makes explicit how those boundaries still try to hold her down. She’s no longer an android, though — she’s a human being ready to be seen for exactly who she is. The 46-minute film is visually arresting and filled with sterling electro-pop from the upcoming record, but its dense thematic nods to sci-fi landmarks aren’t meant simply as fun spot-the-reference Easter eggs. With the revelation that Monáe has come out as pansexual in her new Rolling Stone interview — “Being a queer black woman in America,” she tells writer Brittany Spanos, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” — it’s impossible not to view Dirty Computer as the artist’s emotional, feminist updating of the dystopian concerns that have always swirled through science fiction. But if you’re not as conversant in sci-fi tropes as Monáe is, fear not: We’re here to unpack the film’s ideas and imagery, which only underline their potency.
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Dirty Computer opens with an ominous voiceover spoken by Monáe, who coldly informs us of the bleak reality we’re about to enter. “They started calling us Computers,” she intones. “People began vanishing – and the Cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all.”
It’s a familiar sci-fi tenet – the use of icy exposition to explain the rules of the story’s darkly futuristic world – that’s been seen in everything from Terminator 2 to A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But in Dirty Computer, it’s also a continuation of Monáe’s musical exploration of life as an outsider. A devotee of Metropolis, the 1927 Fritz Lang silent film about a society in which technology has overwhelmed humanity, Monáe has always sided with the machines. Like Blade Runner, with its sympathetic depiction of Replicants, servant-like androids that are treated as second-class citizens, Monáe’s albums see the robots as more soulful than their human counterparts.
Soon, we’re introduced to Monáe as Jane 57821, who has been taken to a facility to be “cleaned.” The antiseptic environment and the depersonalized names – people reduced to a string of numbers – recall the similarly grim outlook of Star Wars mastermind George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, in which human beings have devolved into sterile, efficient drones devoid of emotion. But in the world of Dirty Computer, it’s not so much emotions that need to be cleaned as it is the “wrong” kinds of human feelings.
The mini-film is neatly structured around a narrative spine involving two anonymous white male workers erasing her memories, the movie occasionally cutting to those “memories,” which are individual music videos for the album’s singles. And what quickly becomes clear is that Jane has been designated for cleaning because of her verboten lesbian romance with Zen, a free-spirited beauty played by Thor: Ragnarok star Tessa Thompson.
The clips for the Prince-esque “Make Me Feel” and the Grimes-assisted minimalist pop of “Pynk” are colorful and delightfully choreographed, but they’re even more vivid because they show happy, sexy moments from Jane and Zen’s brief love affair. It’s a heartbreaking rejiggering of the premise of the Oscar-winning sci-fi indie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carrey undergoes an experimental procedure to have his memories of his beloved (Kate Winslet) excised, causing him to relive each memory one last time before it’s wiped away. But in Dirty Computer, that erasure is additionally tragic because it isn’t by choice, as a totalitarian society forcibly makes Jane comply with its homophobic beliefs.
Of course, the film – or, as Monáe calls it, an “emotion picture” – also heavily echoes The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s chilling 1985 novel about a conservative future society, which was adapted into a 1990 film and is now an acclaimed, Emmy-winning Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss as an enslaved woman compelled to serve as a child-bearer for the government’s elite. That series’ examination of its society’s cruel treatment of “others” – gay people, non-Christians – reverberates through Dirty Computer‘s music videos, which defiantly celebrate nonconformity, femininity and sexuality in all its permutations. (In one memory, Jane and Zen enjoy a wistful polyamorous relationship with a man named Ché, played by Jayson Aaron.) And like with The Handmaid’s Tale, Monáe wants to make damn sure we notice the real-world parallels of this nightmare scenario: During “Pynk,” one of her backup dancers proudly sports a pair of panties with the inscription “I grab back,” a smack at the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief Donald Trump and his sexist policies.
Dirty Computer‘s sartorial choices don’t just reference Trump – along with the movie’s production design, they also pay homage to sci-fi hallmarks. Occasionally, characters wear the iconic wide-brim, super-tall hat made famous in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s druggy, cosmic 1973 cult film The Holy Mountain, which, like Dirty Computer, deals with personal freedom and sexual liberation. The drab, smock-like outfits worn in the cleaning facility mirror the impersonal wardrobe in movies like THX 1138, which sharply contrast with Dirty Computer‘s music videos, where Monáe doesn’t just flaunt her reliably stylish fashion sense but also represents for the Afrofuturism that was the linchpin of this year’s cinematic sensation Black Panther. And the facility’s monochromatic color lighting and minimalist design hark back to the work of visual artist James Turrell, who has been an inspiration for everything from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video to the interior of the alien vessel in Arrival.
The mystery of identity and the fluidity of reality are often twinned obsessions in sci-fi: Who are we? And is what we’re experiencing real? Movies as varied as Total Recall and The Matrix have played with these themes, but Dirty Computer delves into them with a poignancy rarely felt in the genre. As Jane’s memories are cleaned, she starts losing essential parts of herself. And it’s not just scenes of her and Zen hanging out in clubs or enjoying warm canoodles on the beach; Dirty Computer‘s lyrics are often personal manifestos about accepting oneself. In the slow-burn R&B number “I Like That,” Jane/Monáe pays tribute to her offbeat essence: “I’m always left of center/And that’s right where I belong/I’m the random minor note/You hear in major songs.” In the film, Monáe’s character is trying to assert her individuality, which makes her the enemy of a soulless regime – a common tension in dystopian sci-fi.
But who will come out on top: the individual or the regime? In sci-fi films, the victor is usually the individual, which offers a reassuring message to viewers that we have the power to vanquish our oppressors. On occasion, though, the big, bad society ends up triumphant in these narratives. That was certainly true of Terry Gilliam’s bleakly funny 1985 film Brazil, in which a sensitive dreamer (Jonathan Pryce) believes at the end of the movie that he’s escaped from being tortured – only for the film to reveal that it was merely the man’s fantasy and that he didn’t get away at all.
Famously, that downer ending inspired angry disagreements between Gilliam and Universal executives, who demanded that the fantasy be depicted as real so that audiences assumed Pryce’s character had indeed escaped. Dirty Computer tweaks Brazil‘s controversial ending by first offering a tragic finale. Jane is shocked to discover that Zen, now freshly “cleaned” and remembering nothing about her, is working in the facility. By the time Jane is able to stir Zen’s memories, though, it’s too late: Jane is sprayed with a mist that will complete her virtual lobotomy. As the film ends, Jane is reduced to being just another bland, smiling worker, prepared to help clean other dirty computers.
Except … we realize we’ve been fooled: Jane and Zen have held onto their identities and break their lover Ché out, ultimately escaping the clutches of this repressive society. As she’s about to make her getaway, though, Jane slowly turns back to the camera as if to savor her victory. In that moment, Monáe can be heard singing on the soundtrack, notably declaring, “Love me, baby/Love me for who I am.” And then Jane/Monáe exits, a free woman.
Sure, it’s a predictable happy ending – but for Monáe, it’s packed with personal resonance. And like with so many of the great sci-fi films she worships, she’s using the genre to craft spiky political and social commentary.
“I thought science fiction was a great way of talking about the future,” Monáe once said. “It doesn’t make people feel like you’re talking about things that are happening right now, so they don’t feel like you’re talking down to them. It gives the listener a different perspective.”
On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe plays with the conventions and totems of dystopian sci-fi to speak her truth and promote a cultural shift toward a more inclusive and loving society – no matter what repressive government (whether real or fictional) is trying to crush that spirit. Monáe is speaking to the present, but for her, the future is now.