Daniel Craig May Be The Star, But Janelle Monáe Steals The Show In Glass Onion

This piece contains spoilers for "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery."

When I first saw "Knives Out" at Fantastic Fest back in 2019 (uncomfortably seated on a folding chair due to an overbooked screening), I was utterly delighted by one major narrative element. Yes, there is all the detective work done by Daniel Craig's southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc, but more than anything, what I was thrilled by was that Blanc was just a co-lead of the movie. The marketing materials didn't hint at this in anyway. We all just thought that Daniel Craig would be the center, and the rest of the star-studded cast would orbit around him. As it turned out, Ana de Armas' Marta was perhaps even more the lead of the film than Craig was, playing the nurse who believes she accidentally killed the man she was caring for. The twists and turns of a murder mystery are always a delight, but rarely does it come to pass that you didn't realize you were watching someone else's story.

"Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery" pulls a similar trick in its narrative, but in this case, the perspective shift is a proper twist of the movie and not just how the story is being told from the beginning. At the film's open, it is squarely centered on Benoit Blanc, which makes sense considering he is the connective tissue to this new mystery, but partway through the picture, the narrative takes a sharp turn and suddenly Janelle Monáe takes center stage. We then get to essentially restart the movie and see everything that we thought we knew shown through an entirely different light. This pivot also gives us the opportunity to see Monáe have fun in a way we haven't seen her ever have on screen before.

A surprise dual role

Janelle Monáe doesn't just play one role in "Glass Onion." She plays two, and a lot of the time, it is one playing the other. The role we are presented with her playing is that of Cassandra "Andi" Brand, the co-founder of the tech company now solely owned and operated by Edward Norton's Miles Bron. Andi has been pushed out of the company in a massive lawsuit where Miles fraudulently claimed to have conceived of the idea for the company on his own, and all of their friends, known to themselves as "The Disrupters," succumbed to the pressure to conspire with Miles to get Andi out.

Her other role is that of Andi's twin sister Helen, a Georgia schoolteacher. You see, Andi has been killed, and Helen enlists the help of Benoit Blanc to uncover who killed her, which includes her impersonating her deceased twin on this private island excursion. The two women could not be more different, but considering they are twins — about as close as two people can be with one another — Helen knows her sister inside and out and can flawlessly take on the role of her sister, especially with the added stakes of finding some kind of justice for her life.

As a way to show the range of Monáe as a performer, "Glass Onion" works tremendously. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her natural screen presence is utilized both as way to channel her inherent dignity and power, while also making a joke out of them as well. Even though she has been in very few movies, Monáe has crafted a persona with her artistic work as someone incredibly elegant, wildly imaginative and kooky, and these performances expertly play to that public perception.

The casualties of capitalism

As was the case with "Knives Out," politics are top of mind when it comes to "Glass Onion." Both films are interested in the power dynamics of race and class but go about exploring them quite differently. Ana de Armas' Marta in "Knives Out" was always an outsider to the central Thrombey family, and seeing their wealth, obliviousness, and entitlement from the viewpoint of someone who operates entirely outside that world made for some sharp — if not all that complex — commentary.

Janelle Monáe's Andi, however, is not someone who the system has rejected or ignored from the start. She co-founded an incredibly successful tech company. What makes her the outsider is something business cannot abide by: empathy. Andi doesn't want to follow through with an potentially deadly energy project, but that would stunt the growth of the company and decrease the money going into its owner's pockets. So, Edward Norton's Miles Bron makes a scapegoat out of her and cuts her out of the company, and because they are worried about their money and status, her friends abandon her as well.

It's no accident that Andi is a woman of color. No one gets shafted more in the our capitalistic, patriarchal society than Black and Indigenous women, and in the tech industry, their representation is particularly lacking. Janelle Monáe embodies that primal frustration without ever outright pointing to it, as there's no explicit discussion of her race or gender. Both Andi and Helen are people who should never be taken advantage of, but the system must put down someone. Unless you burn it all down, that will continue to happen. Thankfully, Helen does. Literally.

Janelle Monáe is the heart of "Glass Onion," and the movie wouldn't be the triumph it is without her.