A dystopian future where neon colours occasionally swirl throughout. Geometric headpieces are worn. Drones act as spies and police to break up the fun of carefree individuals living their best lives. Masked soldiers whisk people away to some technology-controlled-torture-chamber. No, I’m not describing a Black Mirror episode, but instead the futuristic “emotion picture” that accompanies Janelle Monáe’s latest studio album, Dirty Computer.
Similar to Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series, Dirty Computer examines the unanticipated consequences when modern society and technology mix, all with some carefree feminist vibes thrown in. The visuals shown throughout the emotion picture rival the aesthetics in episodes of Black Mirror — everything from the desolate dirt back roads in “Black Museum” to the boxy blazers and pastel tones of “San Junipero.” And much like what went down in the latter episode, technology, mind control, and memories play a huge part in Dirty Computer’s storyline.
“My name is Jane57821. I’m a dirty computer,” Monáe’s character hesitantly repeats at the instruction of an offscreen voice, while strapped down to flat surface. Jane refuses to say that she’s “ready to be cleaned,” prompting the mystery voice to release a gas that will allow the “technicians” to scrub her mind of everything involuntarily.
"They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special," Monáe later says in the film. "And then you were lost. Sleeping. And you didn't remember anything at all."
It’s clear that “dirty computer” is a metaphor for the treatment of Blacks in America. Continuously this country has attempted to erase the history and contributions of Black Americans, as well as the unfair treatment we’ve faced in order to promote the idea that “we’re all one,” similar to the way the dirty computers are having their memories erased to be cleansed and controlled. And like outlaw Jane, Blacks today find themselves continuously terrorised simply for waiting for a friend in a coffee shop or grabbing dinner at a restaurant. In other words, existing.
Though, fortunately, Jane in Dirty Computer takes back her power and the narrative in a mid-credits scene. After taking a stroll down memory lane through everything leading up to her capture and “cleansing moment,” Jane breaks free from the proverbial and literal chains of society and creepy, operation room with the help of her lover and fellow rebel Zen, played by Tessa Thompson.
The second half of the film is littered with numerous anthems — particularly “Django Jane” — with lyrics shouting out black women (“Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it”), and women in general (“Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue”). It closes out with the spirited song “Americans,” an ode to the country’s racist habits and traditions, where Monae boldly declares in the outro: “This is not my America / But I tell you today that the devil is a liar / Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over.”
In many ways Dirty Computer is a reflection of what’s happening today. Destruction, oppression, and occasional panic. But it’s also a reflection that there’s more to come and signals that despite the current madness, the forces of good and the voices of the oppressed will rise to the top.
Until then, everyone should a take a page out of the film heroine’s book: stop blending in, stand up, and speak out. And most importantly, don't let people (or technology) take away your humanity.