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Leading a creative revolution whose ripples were seen from Kanye to Donald Glover to Little Simz, Beyonc consigned the idea of performers sticking to the music to history

By now, its a cliche. You have as many hours in a day as Beyonc, the saying goes. You can find its words slapped on mugs, T-shirts and Instagram quotes or murmured into the bathroom mirror as a bleary-eyed morning affirmation. The backlash (largely led by white women) to this tongue-in-cheek attempt at self-motivation has already pointed out its blind spots around class. Of course, you, regular human with looming mounds of debt and bills, cant maximise your time like a pop star with entire creative and personal teams to eliminate her drudgery. Thats obvious.

But the sentiment that Beyonc would, at one point, have been a nobody just like you, with as much time to work with still holds true. Like her or not, she leveraged a childhood work ethic into a career that spreads beyond her role as a performer. Yes, Beyonc is a singer. Yes, she often co-writes. In addition, she is also an all-round entertainment mogul, directing documentaries and music visuals, executive-producing film soundtracks and commanding a wider, ephemeral level of cultural influence not to mention moving into fashion.

She isnt alone. Over the past decade, black labour in music has produced a new understanding of musicians as curators a word that neatly describes the ways black artistry has evolved with the times. As music has become more visual and omnipresent, weaving itself into ads, apps and other art forms, the most impactful acts of the 2010s have found ways to integrate those outlets into their own output: theyve become industries unto themselves. Music may be their anchor, but for everyone from Rihanna to Janelle Mone to Kanye West, its just one part of their contribution to culture. Working within the framework of an exploitative industry, these black musicians have created a space that allows for at least a semblance of autonomy.

Her work functions like a mirror held up to black women … Janelle Mone performing in October. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

In January 2010, Beyonc announced a hiatus. She retired her Sasha Fierce alter ego and didnt release new recorded material until the following year. (For Beyonc, a hiatus only lasts 18 months.) It marked the first time she had put an explicit homage to soul, classic R&B and more ambitious arrangements ahead of profit. Shed never sounded blacker.

She also retired her father, Matthew Knowles, as her manager and took on that responsibility herself, via her company Parkwood Entertainment. When I decided to manage myself, it was important that I didnt go to some big management company, she said in 2013. I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna, and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career, you dont have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success you do it yourself.

You can almost follow a direct line from this moment to her current work, which is increasingly pro-black, self-examining and intimate. Her quest for self-affirmation played out publicly when she came forward in 2015 as one of the artist-owners of streaming service Tidal, along with husband Jay-Z and just about every A-list musician around at the time. With more economic freedom came the ability to do as she pleases: that much was obvious from her heavily autobiographical self-titled album, surprise-released in 2013, then Lemonade in 2016.

This transition reverberates in the work of peers whove followed in her wake. On opposite sides of the pond, London rapper Little Simz and Afro-futuristic artist Janelle Mone embody the importance of owning the means of production. Simz self-released her first mixtape in 2010, aged 16, on label Age 101 a place for her and the rest of her Space Age rap collective to share their work. By 2013, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar had taken notice. Since then, Simz has branched off into comics, curated a genre-hopping festival Welcome to Wonderland: The Experience and returned to acting (see her now in the Netflix revival of Top Boy). Shes navigated the industry as both an eternal outsider and one of Britains most talented rappers, which seemed to frustrate her at first. The business caught up eventually a Mercury shortlisting here, some Radio 1 airplay there though these days she appears less bothered about external validation, perhaps having realised that the industry needs her more than vice versa.

Rihanna scaled unprecedented levels by becoming the first black woman to head up a luxury fashion brand. Photograph: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna

Mone, meanwhile, co-founded the Wondaland Arts Society which is a film and TV production company, a record label and an organising core for activism in Atlanta. When she moved there from Kansas City in 2001, her art-pop sound and left-field approach soon piqued the interest of Outkasts Big Boi. He introduced her to fellow polymath Sean Combs, who signed her in 2006. As a producer, social justice activist and actor (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) she chooses to uplift black people while acknowledging our complexities. Her 2018 album Dirty Computer confronted questions of gender, sensuality and desire; she can model in a Cover Girl campaign, lead a Black Lives Matter march and be CEO of a record label all roles that show dark-skinned black women theyre more than a worn-out stereotype. Her work functions like a mirror held up to black women, offering them representation in ways that white gatekeepers wouldnt instinctively understand.

This decade, I watched black musicians defy other traditional gatekeepers in the hard-to-crack world of fashion. Like Beyonc, Rihanna entered music as a teen, signing to Def Jam at 17. Now, shes scaled unprecedented levels by becoming the first black woman to head up a luxury fashion brand, with Fenty in partnership with French company LVMH. At the start of the decade, few would have seen her evolution coming. During her Loud era, all shrill EDM production and flame-red hair, she felt easy to dismiss as a pop-machine puppet, singing words written by other people. Now shes a savvy businesswoman, equally at home with music as with philanthropy, acting, design and beauty. Her line Fenty Beauty has shaken the cosmetics industry to its core, forcing a diversity of makeup shades into the market as her competitors scramble to react a sign of what will become a norm. Her Savage x Fenty line does the same for lingerie, essentially ringing the death knell for the Victorias Secret catwalk show by employing a diverse cast of models, as she did at New York fashion week in September.

This matters on two levels. Rihannas success in fashion and beauty moves her away from seeming like a product that belongs to her record label. She becomes a person and force of her own Fenty, after all, is her real-life surname. And by steering all these seemingly disparate parts into one brand, she is creating a new set of norms for black art. Plenty of her peers have seen how investing in and executing a broader vision can support, rather than distract from, their music. Consider the likes of Tyler, the Creator, Solange, Kanye West, Dev Hynes, Frank Ocean and Donald Glover, and you realise how their multifaceted work shaped some of the most important western pop culture of the decade.

Our notions of what counts as black art no longer need to be defined by the global norths white mainstream. Since the 80s, black genres from hip-hop and house to R&B have led countercultures. But those genres used to be put into neat boxes black culture, to be consumed in specific ways and places, without needing to care about the experiences behind the work. Now, black music soundtracks global teendom. Now, Kanye West can endure being laughed out of fashion circles before turning Yeezy into a billion-dollar company. West brought a certain kind of self-conscious tastefulness to his work as a designer, continuing to kick back against convention just as he had as a middle-class art-school kid during his mid-2000s backpack-rap era. (Hardly the usual thug life backstory easier to sell to white consumers.) Glover, meanwhile, can rap (and sing) as Childish Gambino, and also create and executive produce a TV show as lush as Atlanta. Solange can create performance art, with installations for New Yorks Guggenheim and LAs Hammer Museum and Londons Tate Modern. Once you realise youre more than a preconceived notion of a black artist, or of black industry, entire worlds open up.

These polymaths show that you can eschew one neat categorisation and do so on your own terms … Donald Glover as Earn in Atlanta. Photograph: FX Productions

These musicians stories are aligned in a quest for true independence. Such a thing cant exist within the parameters of a business designed for profit historically, recording contracts let labels exploit artists. Yet this type of multifaceted black labour rebukes the idea that youre only worth the figure on your first contract. Frank Oceans Endless album/livestream, a quick way out of his Def Jam contract before he released Blonde, brought these delicate chess moves to life. One of the most boring critiques of Beyonc is that shes just a cog in a corporate machine. But the fact that any of these artists turn their talent into products doesnt negate their overall value.

Black children are always taught that we have to work twice as hard to gain half as much recognition. These displays of black labour, of a relentless drive to excel in various ways and a refusal to be defined by one skill, push that adage to an extreme. These polymaths show that you can eschew one neat categorisation and do so on your own terms. Black American fans of Beyonc would have recognised the cultural references others missed in Homecoming, her 2018 Coachella festival performance, an ode to historically black American universities. Later, it was turned into a Netflix special produced by you guessed it Parkwood Entertainment. The decade in Beyonc drew to a close with her executive-producing 2019s pan-African Lion King reboot soundtrack, The Gift, in addition to voicing Nala in the film.

The idea of performers just sticking to the music is all but dead. In the next decade, it may well become the norm for black artists to explore other creative avenues without being mocked or cut down. As pop music shifts away from English as lingua franca, new global acts could begin to dominate in spaces previously only held by this crop of multitalented public figures.

Seen at a glance, they can inadvertently make hard work appear effortless, and as though youre failing if youre not squeezing as much productivity out of every day as Beyonc. But that misses the point. These artists have poured buckets of themselves into these accomplishments, and have done so while working in an industry still mired in institutional racism, sexism and one that treats duty of care as an afterthought. They made the choice to seek self-determination sometimes at a high cost. What you do with your 24 hours is up to you.

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The cyborg-fixated singer is back with her first album for five years. Outspoken as ever, she explains why shell always speak up for black women and how much she misses her mentor, Prince

Days before she delivers her unequivocal Times Up speech at the Grammys We come in peace, but we mean business Janelle Mone walks into an upper-level hotel suite in Manhattan, just as sunset begins to fade over the Hudson river. Her 5ft stature is amplified by a wide-brimmed hat and a warm, room-owning confidence. She is dressed in a fetching new arrangement of her preferred black-and-white palette: a slightly cropped top and flared pants, worn under a fuzzy black duster coat with massive white polka dots. Mones uniform of suits and tuxedos, by her reckoning, is a fashion statement second, a political statement first a homage to her working-class upbringing, she says.

Mone at the Grammy awards in January 2018. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Since her breakout more than a decade ago with the Fritz Langinspired EP Metropolis, and her critically acclaimed full-length debut The ArchAndroid, political statements have been at the core of Mones work. She brought Afrofuturism and science fiction into R&B and pop; her public image was scripted according to the same otherworldly narrative. She has been nominated for six Grammy awards although major chart success has eluded her and successfully segued into acting, with key roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Its hard to believe, then, when she says, in her warm, down-to-earth Kansas-to-Atlanta accent, Im terrified.

Mone confesses it is the first time that she has talked about the two songs she is unveiling initial glimpses of Dirty Computer, her first album since Electric Lady was released five years ago. Has it been that long? she says. I dont know. I live in the future! But I always knew I had to make this album. I had the title even before I made ArchAndroid.

Last week she dropped a teaser for Dirty Computer and its accompanying narrative film (or rather, emotion picture). Fittingly, the 33-second trailer is being shown ahead of screenings of Black Panther, a film whose Afrofuturist storyline is in keeping with the themes of Mones work. The dystopic teaser co-stars the actor Tessa Thompson, whose character is abducted by a figure in military uniform, and who later embraces Mone on a beach; it cuts then to Mone lying on an examination table as a series of haunting and cryptic flashbacks play in rapid succession and she narrates: They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special.

Watch the trailer for Mones emotion picture Dirty Computer

The first two singles from Dirty Computer, Django Jane and Make Me Feel, seem like significant clues to the twin directions of the album. Django Jane is Mones rallying cry, a rebellious protest anthem for women in general (We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth, she sings; a recent favourite book is The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjo, the Swedish proponent of the Goddess movement, which champions female deities) and for African-American women in particular (Black girl magic, yall cant stand it). She puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue. Its one of Mones most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence cerebral, her music controlled, her constructed look.

Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish, she sings, in a pointed taunt. This is Mone 2018: One of the things Im trying to learn to do is let go. She says that letting go has come about in part thanks to therapy, and in part to translating political anger, as she ever more explicitly addresses wrongs against black Americans. Django Jane is a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the other, and the marginalised in society thats who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.

But Dirty Computer promises moments of danceable joy, too, and those also feel distinctly personal this time around. Make Me Feel, with a guitar groove that evokes Princes Kiss, is a song of desire and freedom, illustrated with an alluring visual, as Mone prefers to call the video. Its a colour-saturated club fantasy with 80s vibes, co-written by Mone and directed by Alan Ferguson AKA Mr Solange Knowles, who also directed Mones videos for Electric Lady, Prime Time and, with Erykah Badu, Q.U.E.E.N. We spent a lot of time making something very detailed that didnt need a lot of explaining, that was just about the emotion, she says.

The film features two characters played by the singer herself the suit-wearing powerhouse Janelle Mone and the free-spirited, slightly risqu Janelle Mone who sashays into a club with Tessa Thompson; she sensuously accepts a lollipop from Thompson while locking eyes with a handsome guy. It may not need explaining, says Mone, but gossip rags have wondered loudly whether these 33 seconds (and a seemingly affectionate red-carpet appearance) could mean that Mone and Thompson are dating, or that Mone is finally out of the closet.

Mone (right) with Tessa Thompson at a film premiere in February 2018. Photograph: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Rumours have long been whispered about her sexuality, but Mone has thus far resisted publicly defining it; she characterises herself again as sexually liberated and she declines to frame Make Me Feel in literal terms. Its a celebratory song, she says. I hope that comes across. That people feel more free, no matter where they are in their lives, that they feel celebrated. Because Im about womens empowerment. Im about agency. Im about being in control of your narrative and your body. That was personal for me to even talk about: to let people know you dont own or control me and you will not use my image to defame or denounce other women.

Its an ugly phenomenon she has glimpsed on social media. I see how people try to pit women against each other, she says. There are people who have used my image to slut-shame other women: Janelle, we really appreciate that you dont show your body. Thats something Im not cool with. I have worn a tuxedo, but I have never covered up for respectability politics or to shame other women.

Im guilty feeling like I cant just be, she says. Like either its this or its that, its black or its white. But theres so much grey. And I think Im kind of discovering the grey and realising its OK not to have all the answers, or to supply them.

In the years after Electric Lady, Mone turned her talents to playing other people in Barry Jenkinss Moonlight, the first LGBTQ film and the first film with an all-black cast to win the best picture Oscar; in Hidden Figures, about female African American Nasa employees; and, recently, in Channel 4s adaptation of Philip K Dicks dystopian Electric Dreams. She spoke movingly at the Womens March on Washington in 2017 (Remember to choose freedom over fear!) and later that year launched the organisation Fem the Future, a pre-Times Up grassroots movement aimed at empowering women and those identifying as women, especially in the arts and music.

And she hasnt been musically silent either. Mones 2015 single Hell You Talmbout recounts a chilling list of names of African American victims of police brutality. Its a Black Lives Matter song, a protest song. You know, I spend a lot of time in the future, Mone says, her sheer warmth and sincerity cancelling out any self-parody, as she nods to her cyborg persona. But to help the future sometimes you got to go back to the past, and sometimes you got to stay in the present.

Mone says the toughest part about staying living in the present in 2018 is moving forward in a world without her chief musical mentor. Its difficult for me to even speak about this because Prince was helping me with the album, before he passed on to another frequency, she says. His sudden death was a stab in the stomach. The last time I saw him was New Years Day. I performed a private party in St Barts with him, and after we sat and just talked for five hours. He was one of the people I would talk to about things, him and Stevie Wonder. Both were among her earliest champions. Before The ArchAndroid was released, she sent each of them a copy, on CD-R, with a handwritten track list.

Prince not only encouraged her then, he lobbied for her first BET awards appearance and he performed on Electric Lady; when he died, he and Mone were collecting sounds for Dirty Computer. I wouldnt be as comfortable with who I am if it had not been for Prince. I mean, my label Wondaland would not exist without Paisley Park coming before us, Mone says. She laughs a little. He would probably get me for cussin, but Prince is in that free motherfucker category. Thats the category when we can recognise in each other that youre also a free motherfucker. Whether we curse or not, we see other free motherfuckers. David Bowie! A free motherfucker. I feel their spirit, I feel their energy. They were able to evolve. You felt that freedom in them.

Performing with Prince in Uncasville, Connecticut, in 2013. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for NPG Records 2013

Dusk is falling over the city as she gives this eulogy for her heroes, the artists who have so inspired her. I dedicate a lot of my music to Prince, for everything hes done for music and black people and women and men, for those who have something to say and also at the same time will not allow society to take the dirt off of them. Its about that dirt, and not getting rid of that dirt, she says, referring back to the things that made us special mentioned in the trailer.

Bowie and Prince probably did get scared too, Mone reckons; her own risk is admitting her fears, which would seem to point to still more revelations to come in the full album. Sticking up for those who are often left behind and dont have a voice doing that was one thing on film, but doing that in music is different because its all you, she says. So I cant sit back here and tell you Im confident and fearless. Im terrified right now. Like, I dont know how my familys gonna react, I dont know what people are going to say.

What is the worst they could say? The thing she is most afraid of? She takes a deep breath. Im about to cry, she says, and dabs briefly at her eyes as she collects herself. I think rejection. This may all be in my head, cause I have a tendency to overthink shit I know that about myself. But I think: rejection. This started with me, with my feelings. But people want me to be an image thats in their mind; what held me back was that I represent something to so many people and people put all this pressure on me to be just this one thing.

She doesnt specify what that one thing is. A pop star? A sci-fi goddess? A civil rights spokesperson? Perhaps she is shrewdly withholding further information for the albums release. Some of it is factual, some of it is fiction, she says, but it all started with me as the subject.

What does seem to be clear is that the protection of her cyborg character seems to have been shed Dirty Computer looks set to be her most human work yet. As she is ushered out by her team, she turns back, seemingly willing herself to be vulnerable. This project was about painting in different colours, not just black and white; going in and allowing myself to use all the shades of the crayon box, she says. It was time to focus on being a complete, complex human being. I dont know whos gonna come with me and whos gonna criticise me, but Im not gonna renege, and Im not gonna hide. Somewhere, surely, her heroes are applauding.

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Shes a musician whose work has brought her massive acclaim. Shes also an outspoken activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, and now Janelle Mone is in Moonlight, one of the most talked about films of the year

One of Janelle Mones earliest childhood memories is of being hugged by her grandmother, a former sharecropper from Mississippi, and listening to her stories from the past: her years as a cotton picker; how their family came to be in Kansas City; the importance of connection to others. It was there, in her grandmas arms, that a slip of a six-year-old girl decided that one day she would become a storyteller, too. She wrote precocious plays and poems, sang and entered talent competitions that she often won, and gave her mother the winnings to help towards the electricity bill.

Twenty five years later, and Mones an acclaimed musician, record label boss and activist who is about to make her acting debut. Ive never viewed myself as just a musician or singer, she says. Im a storyteller who wants to tell untold, meaningful, universal stories in unforgettable ways. I want to do it all, study it all and find my place in it.

Her first role provides a great opportunity for telling an unforgettable story. Barry Jenkinss Moonlight is the coming-of-age tale of Chiron, an African American boy dealing with his sexuality. Its based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by award-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and is all but certain of Oscar nominations when theyre announced on Tuesday. Mone plays Teresa and she and her drug dealer boyfriend Juan become surrogate parents to little Chiron. Mone calls it her Neo from The Matrix moment, explaining that this film, and her recent move into acting, has always been her destiny, that she doesnt believe in coincidence: Things dont just happen, she says. Its all connected.

Its odd to hear her say this, as in person Mone doesnt feel very connected. When we meet she wears huge, round mirrored shades which obscure her face and stay firmly on throughout our interview, reflecting my own face back at me twice over. She sits neatly at the table, her legs curled beneath her. Shes courteous and friendly and businesslike. She chooses her words carefully.

I had a strong visceral reaction to the Moonlight script, partly because I felt I knew all of these characters, she says. I grew up with a drug dealer like Juan in my neighbourhood who was a mentor to local young people. I had a family member who was addicted to crack, like Paula [Chirons biological mother, played by Naomie Harris]. Chiron himself reminded me of my little cousin they were all characters I could relate to from my upbringing. And Ive played the role of Teresa in real life: my family and friends always have a shoulder to lean on with me, she says.

About 40 minutes into Moonlight, Chiron, sitting at Teresa and Juans table, asks what a faggot is and whether he is one. Theres no music in this scene; Juan doesnt grab a gun and try to blow anyone away. Instead, he gracefully picks the word apart. Its an unexpected reaction.

The misconception is that drug dealers are all monolithic, says Mone, that what you see on TV is how they are in real life. The dealers I knew growing up were hustling and making choices they may not be proud of, but they were also giving back to the community, mentoring young boys and girls, helping people to pay their bills. They can be surrogate mothers and fathers to people in their communities, just like in Moonlight.

Mone grew up in Kansas City with her mother, a janitor, her truck driver stepfather and a sister. Money was tight but her large, devoutly Christian family she has more than 50 first cousins were close. My grandmother had 11 children and although we didnt have a whole lot of money, what we did have was a lot of love, she says. My grandmother was the matriarch. If you didnt have a place to stay, if you needed food, if you were just coming out of jail or rehab, you went to her. Watching her in our family and our wider community was what inspired me and still does.

Doing her sums: in Hidden Figures with Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Life was tough. There was a lot of nonsense growing up so I reacted by creating my own world, she says. The arts local theatre groups, singing and drama classes gave Mone the drive and focus to finish high school and temporarily work alongside her mother as a maid to save enough money to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.

She then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, after she finished her studies. Shed update her MySpace profile while working at Office Depot to make ends meet, and came to the attention of fellow Atlantan Big Boi of Outkast. They became collaborators and, in 2006, he introduced her to Sean Diddy Combs, who offered her a recording contract. Mone was initially wary of signing her creative control away, but took the chance and it paid off. Diddy was hands off and wanted me to do my thing. Thats why hed offered to sign me in the first place, because I was different and I was the whole package.

For Mone, at 31, with three albums and six Grammy award nominations under her belt, her own record label up and running and two film roles in the pipeline (she also co-stars in the film Hidden Figures, the true story of the African American female mathematicians who helped catapult US astronaut John Glenn into space in the 1960s), 2016 was a year of professional triumphs but personal heartache. She had spent the early part of the year working on new music with her close friend and collaborator, Prince. He was actually helping me with my new music during the time before he transitioned. I was lucky enough to see his last show and tell him how much I loved him. He was a giver people dont know that. He gave so much: advice, very quiet donations to charities. He was a truly incredible soul.

Making her point: on a Black Lives Matter march in San Francisco. Photograph: Breningstall/REX Shutterstock

Still mourning for Prince, Mone was grief-struck a second time last year when, in August, her cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting. The 37-year-old was shot several times when the gunman sprayed bullets into the Kansas City home where she and her three children were sleeping. The gunman remains free. Mone, a long-time advocate of tighter gun control and an active voice in the Black Lives Matter movement pauses, and says quietly: My family is heartbroken and Im still devastated. My cousin was an innocent mother of three children. How? How can this be real life? She continues: We have to do something about gun laws. And we also have to do something about police brutality towards African American people. She points out that they are two different issues, but that we need more allies. People need to continue to speak out about the way African American people are being treated. An injustice to one black man or woman is an injustice to everybody.

Mone has led marches for Black Lives Matter, performed at a concert in aid of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, alongside Stevie Wonder last year, and released a protest song, Hell You Talmbout, in October in response to the police brutality. Unsurprisingly, she is no fan of Donald Trump. Millennials will not be silenced were the powerhouse now. Were not going to let those who want to make America great again truly take over. Because what Trump means by making America great again is oppressing women, oppressing minorities, creating hate. Were not allowing him to run the world, even though he thinks he is.

I ask her how she feels she can make a difference personally. Mone takes a deep, considered breath and says calmly: Music is my weapon. I wont remain silent. Michelle Obama having been our First Lady for eight years set an example of how we need to be. We need to be visible and we need to be loud. Were not objects. For the first time during the interview, Mone shows more than a crack of emotion not much but enough to know that the sunglasses stay on for a reason.

Moonlight opens in the UK on 17 February

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Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae hosted an emotional preview of footage from their awards-tipped drama about the untold story of landmark NASA employees in the 1960s

The untold true story of three African American women who made an indelible contribution to NASA in the 1960s is set to be a landmark biopic.

Hidden Figures received a special footage screening at this years Toronto film festival, with key scenes from the film shown and stars from the film attending. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae spoke about the drama, alongside producer Pharrell Williams, who also provides music for the film.

This is so important, right? a tearful Henson remarked to the audience before Spencer admitted that she had also been crying while the footage played.

I didnt fall in love with this industry because of the accolades, Henson said. Im a girl from the hood. All I had was dreams and hope and thats the reason why this is so overwhelming. If I had known about these women when I was growing up then maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist. Kids of colour just look up at sports and rap and acting and there is so much more important work to be done.

The story focuses on three colleagues (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) working at NASA in the early 1960s at a time when people of colour were segregated in an outside office. Despite the lower pay and constant discrimination, they all made major contributions to aerospace engineering and, in particular, their calculations helped to safely land the first American astronaut to orbit earth.

It does become emotional because you realise these women were operating, dreaming and engineering in a matrix that was filled with racism, sexism and discrimination, Williams said. How could you not want to be involved in this movie?

The film is still to be finished and the stars remarked that it was the first time they had seen the clips as well. Grammy-nominated singer Monae, also starring in festival hit Moonlight, reiterated the importance of the story.

Hidden Figures transcends race, she said. When I see them, I just see heroes. Im proud as a woman and Im proud as a minority but Im also proud as an American. Theyre superheroes but theyre real.

The footage screened might have reached some familiar notes but it all played out with crowd-pleasing panache, showcasing the charm of all three leads and touching upon deeper issues of segregation and discrimination. There remains a light tough though, as shown in a scene where the women find themselves faced with a broken down car in the middle of nowhere. An initially rude policeman quizzes them but once he finds out where they work, they receive a police escort to the office. As Henson tells Monae to slow down, she quips: But were three negro women chasing a white cop in 1961!

The film will receive an awards qualifying release in December with hopes that it might be one of the films to prevent another #OscarsSoWhite debacle for the third year running.

The biopic, a genre typically dominated by white male narratives, is heading towards a small revolution. As well as Hidden Figures, we can also expect a drama about the life of civil rights activist Angela Davis while Oprah Winfrey will take on the lead in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a woman whose cells became instrumental in medical research.

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Writer/director Barry Jenkins bold and uniquely told film about the struggle to accept ones own sexuality is both heartbreaking and deeply relevant

Its been a particularly horrifying year for minority groups in America. The increasingly documented inhumanity towards African-American men by police and the brutal act of homophobia that took mostly Hispanic lives at a gay club in Orlando have awakened many to the bleak knowledge that progress is stalling and instead, regressive views on race and sexuality are still dangerously pervasive.

Stories of LGBT people of colour have been largely ignored in film or at least relegated to the sidelines while instead, were offered up the whitewashed history of Roland Emmerichs tone deaf Stonewall or straight-friendly Oscarbait like The Danish Girl. But, in a festival season thats too often populated by quite literally vanilla awards fare, writer/director Barry Jenkins astonishing new film is both proudly black and refreshingly queer. Its a thrilling, deeply necessary work that opens up a much-needed and rarely approached on-screen conversation about the nature of gay masculinity.

Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film follows the life of a man in three key stages. Initially, we meet nine-year-old Chiron as he runs through the streets of Miami, chased by his peers. He attracts the attention of local drug dealer Jean (Mahershala Ali) who comes to his aid and with the help of his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), he gets him to open up as they take care of him at their home. It becomes a refuge for him, away from his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, giving her best performance since 28 Days Later), a nurse with a crack addiction, who alternates between overbearing affection and cruel neglect.

Chiron is withdrawn and lonely, a target for the boys at school who seem to recognise something within him thats still a secret to Chiron himself. In one, unforgettably wrenching scene, he asks Jean and Teresa what a faggot is and how he knows if he might be one. By the time we see Chiron in the second chapter, hes a teenager whos learnt to survive by hiding his sexuality from those around him, slowly developing a tough exterior. But his true identity still haunts him, he cries so much he worries he might turn into drops and he remains a bullied and physically abused outcast. In the final stretch, Chiron is a man with a fully developed guard against the world, a toxic masculinity thats led him down dark and dangerous alleys to avoid facing who he really is.

Despite the difficult subject matter at hand, Jenkins avoids drowning us in despair. Theres a remarkably unexpected focus on the beauty that surrounds Chiron with moments of soaring wonder so perfectly aligned that theres something almost Malickian about his marriage of lush music and dreamy imagery. Its an entirely unique vision and wrongfoots us from the start. Similarly, the script avoids cliche and refuses to paint these characters as the stereotypes theyre so often presented as. Chirons surrogate father of sorts, played with exceptional deftness by Ali, confounds our worst Hollywoodised expectations. Rather than training Chiron to run drugs for him or grooming him in a predatory manner, hes giving swimming lessons and telling him that his sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. Its yet more levity that helps the film from becoming unrelentingly grim.

But Jenkins is also unafraid to pull any punches in showing the crushing loneliness and horrific violence of being a gay man in a culture where homosexuality is seen as a weakness. We see the visible and invisible scars that develop from a lack of acceptance and by the time we finally meet Chiron, played with incredible nuance by ex-athlete Travonte Rhodes, hes trapped by his own desire, regulating his behaviour to remove anything that could be seen as gay. The third act sees him return home to reunite with a school friend (an exceptional performance from Andre Holland) with whom he had his one sexual encounter with during his teenage years. Theres a thrilling, heart-pumping chemistry in these scenes as we see Chirons performed toughness fade in the face of a love hes so sorely needed throughout his tortured life. Its beautifully choreographed and easily the most believably intimate gay pairing since Andrew Haighs Weekend. Every single aching glance is a poignant reminder of what Chiron has endured to get here.

Moonlight is a profoundly moving film about growing up as a gay man in disguise, a difficult and damaging journey thats realised with staggering care and delicacy and one that will resonate with anyone who has had to do the same. Were starved of these narratives and Jenkins electrifying drama showcases why they are so hugely important, providing an audience with a rarely seen portrait of what it really means to be a black gay man in America today. Its a stunning achievement.

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