A few weeks ago, Rapper Kid Cudi revealed his battle with depression in a concise social media post that garnered attention from his fans, industry colleagues and fellow Black men, who too have silently suffered from mental illness. His announcement to seek treatment spawned the hashtag #YouGoodMan, created by Dayna Lynn Nuckolls, as a way to give Black men a forum to share their struggle with mental illness.
According to Mental Health America, (adult) African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult Whites while are Blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are Whites.
This continues to be an area plagued with stigma in the Black community, which is why Gbenga Akinnagbe’s role in the Urban Movie Channel film Knucklehead is so important.
Knucklehead follows the eccentric Langston (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who is convinced prescription drugs can cure him of his mental disorder.
Langston’s brother is shot, leaving him under the care of his abusive mother Sheila (Alfre Woodard). Langston’s obsession with a celebrity magazine columnist leads him on a journey to obtain questionable prescription drug cocktail so he can become “mentally excellent.”
Akinnagbe opened up to #TeamBeautiful about the film, it’s importance and how Black men continue to suffer through mental illness.
HelloBeautiful: There are a few bodies of work that explore Black men suffering from mental illness. How important is a film like this and why?
Akinnagbe: This film is important because it explores mental illness among black people and black communities unapologetically. You usually don’t get to see those types of depictions without layers of stereotypes but this story could take place anywhere – among Asians, Hispanics, etc. And of course because we have Alfre Woodard in the film. She is all-around bad-ass and does a phenomenal job as Sheila!
HB: Why do you think a lot of Black men don’t seek professional help with their mental illnesses?
Gbenga Akinnagbe: I think it’s basically because they’re ashamed. There’s a shame behind it, an overall negative stigma. As Black men, we’re not allowed to be vulnerable, even within our own communities. It’s like we’re not able to be whole and to have that human element as all people do. Shame, embarrassment, pride. We don’t want to acknowledge our suffering and neither does our community.
HB: What is your personal experience with mental illness? Have you or anyone close to you suffered from one?
Akinnagbe: I think almost everyone has. It’s such a normal part of life, a human phenomenon. I’ve had family members who have suffered from all types of mental illnesses, past and present. It can be hard to diagnose and difficult to help. It’s also an illness that encourages secrecy. People don’t want to get help or admit they have an issue and it’s frustrating to watch someone you love suffer. You suffer as well. It’s hard to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. In such a situation, you’re left with very few options.
HB: What do you hope this film accomplishes?
Akinnagbe: I hope it helps to take away some of the stigma of mental illness. I hope it gets people talking, black and white. Sit around the dinner table and have a conversation. I hope people find that they can relate to Langston and Sheila in some way. Aside from Langston, Sheila is also suffering. Her actions are to punish Langston because she herself is in pain as well. While watching this film, I hope people can extend empathy on both sides and can find an understanding of how these two people got to this place of hurt.
HB: What did you learn about yourself while filming ‘Knucklehead’?
Akinnagbe: I learned to be very careful when I have to produce a film. There are so many moving parts and elements to this process. And it can be especially challenging when your funds are limited. Everyone has competing interests. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Producing stimulates a part of me that acting doesn’t. I used to rant and rave against the machine of Hollywood for not telling our stories, but Hollywood was never intended to tell our stories, especially not the way we see them. We have to do that ourselves. That’s why I’m so grateful for Knucklehead and to my co-producer Ben Bowman for allowing me to embark on this journey with him.
HB: What’s behind the name ‘Knucklehead’?
Akinnagbe: It’s a general term that I think is really cool about someone who’s just a little different. It could be anyone who does things their own way, anyone who operates a little outside of the system.
HB: What was it like working with Alfre Woodard?
Akinnagbe: I loved it. Working with Alfre was such a gift. She is amazing both as an actor and as a person overall. I would gladly work with her any chance I get. She definitely made me better and the production as well.
HB: What was the most challenging scene to film and how did you prepare for it?
Akinnagbe: The most challenging scene to film was the last scene where Langston finally stands up for himself and comes into his own. It was such a painful scene to shoot. It was painful to see these two broken, damaged people confronting each other in such an intense way. At the end, Langston becomes a bit more whole, a bit more of a man. The fact that it was very hot and were running out of time made the scene a bit more of a challenge as well but I loved it!
Watch the trailer for Knucklehead, below:
Stream Knucklehead, here.