Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” and Focusing on the Present

Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” blends sci-fi and non-linear storytelling to tell a powerful afro-futurist story. The movie tells its story through a changing timeline that shifts between the main character Jane being trapped by a unnamed entity in some facility where they plan on erasing her memories, thus “cleaning” her and ridding her of the status of a “dirty computer”, and the memories that are cycled through and deleted of her’s.

One aspect of the movie that stood out to me immediately was the set design of facility Jane is trapped. It’s very monotone, consisting of a lot of white, grey and other muted colors, and has a very sterile and impersonal atmosphere which is fostered by things such as the matching outfits of the facility personnel, and their blank stares as they go about their work. This is very much done to contrast the settings of the memories shown, which are extremely vibrant and all respectively unique in regards to the locations, the outfits, and the general atmosphere created by what was going on each memory, as well as the song accompanying these memories.


The people who have kidnapped Jane plan on wiping her of these memories because they believe that somehow these experiences make Jane tainted, unfit, or as they call it, dirty. Somehow removing these memories of happiness, fulfillment, and vulnerability will make her clean. I think that what Monáe is trying to do throughout this film is to make us fear this flavorless, conformist future. This future isn’t one anyone would look at with a sense of hope. In fact, I’d say this future more inspires a sense of dread. In the scope of afro-futurism, I think this film is using the future to show the importance of fully experiencing contemporary black life because the future holds no promises. Not only does the future not hold promises but the capacity of greatness for the future can only be met by the efforts of today. What Monáe is saying with these memories and these people’s obsession with getting rid of them is that there’s a societal fixation on moving away from some facets of contemporary black life, specifically the aspects of it that are supportive of individuality and self expression. A beautiful and spirited  future, unlike that in the movie, is only achievable by existing within the now as one’s true self, untethered by anyone else’s limits.

One Reply to “Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” and Focusing on the Present”

  1. I really like how you examined how the colors of the scene set the mood. I would say years ago we saw the future as hopeful and exciting. I feel like nowadays, the perception of the future is seen more as grim and apocalyptic and many contemporary art pieces like Dirty Computer elude to that.

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