Later this month, the 2017 Oscar nominations will be announced, and there's one name I'm hoping to hear: Janelle Monáe. The singer turned actress appeared in two critically acclaimed movies in 2016, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In both films — her first major roles, if you can believe it — she plays two very different women who thrive despite the adversity they face. The roles are certainly not flashy; Monáe doesn't need to scream and shout to make sure her characters are heard. But these roles aren't thankless either.
Monáe has a quiet grace in every scene she's in that makes you want to see more of her. She's a commanding presence in both films, who manages to take a supporting role and turn it into an unforgettable one. She does this by turning her characters into real people not symbols or stereotypes.
In Moonlight, Monáe plays Teresa, the girlfriend of a kind-hearted drug dealer (Mahershala Ali), who takes in a young lost boy named Chiron. Teresa realizes this boy doesn't have anyone else, and she treats him as her own. Her small gestures of compassion change this boy's life forever, as we see in later in the film that is broken down into three parts, which focus on Chiron's coming of age.
As a teenager we see that Chiron has found a home at Teresa's. She's become his de-facto mom since his own struggles with substance abuse problems that don't allow much time for parenting. Teresa is the only one who shows support for this quiet boy who could have been another latchkey kid. She pushes him to speak up and share his feelings, letting him know she is there to listen.
Monáe is the film's secret MVP, changing the course of Chiron's life for the better. She does this by making sure Teresa is not some trope; she is not merely a gangster's girlfriend, but a complex and nuanced person who has her own story to tell. While we don't get it, we see the kind of person she is in her moments with Chiron. He is tough on the outside, but you see the care of Teresa in the way he lives his life. Her influences may go unsaid, but it definitely doesn't go unnoticed.
Monáe has a knack for bringing shine to powerful women who are too often ignored by Hollywood. In Hidden Figures, she plays real life mathematician Mary Jackson, who was one of three women who worked for NASA to help John Glenn become the first American astronaut to full orbit the Earth in 1969.
Jackson is a smart and capable woman, who fought to be recognized for what she could do and not for what she couldn't because of the color of her skin. In a scene in a court house, Monáe calmly and firmly explains to the judge why he should give her the chance to be the first black woman to attend an all-white school. It is because he — the first person in his family to serve in the armed forces — can relate to being the first of something.
Throughout the movie, Jackson fights to no longer be hidden, and Monáe exemplifies this struggle not through sweeping monologues, but by showing that Mary Jackson shouldn't be remembered for only being the first of something. She should be remembered for being the courageous, talented, and intelligent person she is.
Monáe deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination because in both of these films she doesn't give your average Oscar performance. Instead, with each of these roles, Monáe gives Hollywood fully realized female characters that are unlike the ones we're used to seeing onscreen. The kind of women who do it all, but get very little in return. The kind of women who will fight for their right to do more and be more. The kind of women that Hollywood and history often overlooks — to the detriment of everyone.
A nomination for Monáe would show that these complex stories are important and necessary, and it would also shows that the actresses who play them are too.