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Gbenga Akinnagbe

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Black mental illness is a quiet topic. Culturally, we shy away from our pain by keeping it inside, avoiding therapy and relying heavily on religion to soothe us. During ABFF, #TeamBeautiful was able to catch Ben Bowman’s “Knucklehead,” which followed the lives of mother-son duo, Langston Bellows (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Sheila (Alfre Woodard). Together, they’re a dysfunctional pair of love, addiction, mental illness and hate.

Bowman had a lot of frustration around this movie. As he was attempting to put everything together, everything fell apart, twice. Not only did it fall apart, but the people around Bowman told him that no one would buy tickets to a movie with an all-Black cast that’s not about sports, gangs, or the entertainment business. While many would walk away, “Knucklehead” kept calling Bowman.

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Akinnagbe’s character Langston is complicated and endearing, but he’s also mentally ill and lives with his abusive and alcoholic mother, Sheila. “We all have limitations, but Langston has a different set of limitations,” Akinnagbe said. Watching their scenes, you’re slapped in the face with the unspoken disappointment that mental illness in the Black home causes. It’s uncomfortable to watch, which means Bowman did something spot-on here.

From Langston’s undying desire to get the right “‘scriptions” to make him “mentally excellent,” to Sheila’s love and hate of her own son and his limitations to literally hop-scotching through the mental complexities Langston possesses, “Knucklehead” is a dynamic ride that somehow still manages to hold up a mirror to your face. Black pain and mental illness aren’t new concepts. Gbenga said, “We see Black pain, we internalize it and then it hurts us. It cuts our lifespans in half, but that’s not all who we are.”

Obviously we are a lot of things and oftentimes, movies that attempt to chronicle Black lives miss the mark. But not “Knucklehead.” Every character was well-played, nuanced to the T and gritty. It was like watching life unfold.

So how did Gbenga manage to capture the torture of mental illness without playing Langston’s debilitated characteristics? He said,”I’ve lived with the character for a while and this script for a while and because I was also producing, so I was forced to see all the story elements and live with those as well. I don’t know how I differentiate this role from any other role; I just throw myself in and hopefully people respond.”

Bowman understood that in making this film, he was able to make the conversation around Black pain not only start, but go into depths that are terrifying. There are plenty of us who aren’t “mentally excellent” and in order to get there, we’ve got to go on our own journey, similar to Langston’s.

“We have a great deal of beauty and history, so we have to make an effort to find that and share that and give that to other Black people. So instead of sharing a legacy of Black pain we have to re-engage with our legacy of Black culture and history and beauty,” Gbenga brilliantly said.

You have go and see “Knucklehead.”


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‘Knucklehead’ Expertly Explores The Intricacies Of Mental Illness In Black Families  was originally published on