How ‘Knucklehead’ could change the way we look at black men with mental illness

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Actor Gbenga Akinnagbe’s character in the new indie film Knucklehead is a young man who wants to be “mentally excellent” but thinks only prescription drugs can help. Poverty and abuse then slowly undermine him, leaving his mental disability unmanaged and his life spiraling out of control.

Akinnagbe, who also executive produced the film, co-stars with Emmy award-winning actress Alfre Woodard, who plays his violent and mean-spirited mother.

Akinnagbe (The Wire) convinced Woodard to sign on, saying the power of the script made all the difference. The project encountered several financial roadblocks during filming, but the cast never wavered. spoke with Akinnagbe about how depicting the story of one man’s struggle with his mental health could spark a much-needed discussion in the black community.

Langston is a character who feels so familiar, someone we’ve seen on the streets or even in our own families. What made you want to tell his story?

I fell in love with the script. It was a beautiful script, and honestly, most scripts aren’t.

You often see stories like this, but they have a different cast. ‘Young white Hollywood’ tells stories like this of people struggling and going through their own journeys, and I thought this was a good opportunity to tell our own story.

Mental illness is still a taboo subject, especially in the black community. How does this movie explore the issue of mental illness?

It’s a question that goes back and forth a lot. Is Langston mentally ill or does he have developmental delays? Obviously he was born one way, but does he begin to suffer from something else given the circumstances in which he was born? 

The movie does a good job of exploring his familial relationships, because whatever you born with, whatever you come into, the circumstances you have in your life are the ones you have to deal with.  

In my mind, we’re not exploring his mental illness; we’re just seeing somebody who’s living his life.

Your personal story is one of growing up in a housing project in the DMV area. How did that influence what you brought to the character?

As far as my background, I was in and out of different institutions and projects. I didn’t have hope, I didn’t think anything could be better. There was kind of an acceptance or peace in that.

Langston would arguably be more a tortured character compared to how I grew up just because he has an idea of a better life.

Things turned out to be decent for me in the long run, I was fortunate — I started to discover other worlds and things I could do. I guess maybe I grew up and became a little bit more Langston — I discovered hope.

You were talking about ‘Young White Hollywood’ telling stories of poverty and impoverishment and struggle. For someone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, what can you tell them is going to be different about this?

For one, it’s set in Bed Stuy — pre-gentrification Bed Stuy — so that’s one big difference. There’s nothing flashy about this.

This is a guy and his story, and to me, there’s honesty, getting behind someone in a very real way. It’s not like he wins a million dollars at the end, which is very un-Hollywood.

As a black man, what do you think it will take to create a safe space for other black men to address issues of mental health?

What Kid Cudi did was huge, this hashtag people are talking about, movies like “Knucklehead”— it has to become something that’s part of the conversation, where people aren’t judged and don’t feel judged.

No one can judge Cudi, no one can judge anybody who’s suffering or struggling with mental illness. It’s honestly one of the most human things.

It’s been stigmatized in our community and particularly among black men who think they have to be this strong image, unfeeling and so on…

We have to show images of black men having fun and playing. Showing images of black women and children doing that.  

We show it and we accept and it and do it more — showing this is normal, you’re okay.  That’s normal too.

Knucklehead premieres Friday, October 21, on the Urban Movie Channel, the first “urban-focused streaming service in North America,” with exclusive content created with black audiences in mind.