Gbenga Akinnagbe and Alfre Woodard in Knucklehead
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Mental illness, still very much a taboo subject in the African-American community, is tackled head-on in the new movie Knucklehead, starring Alfre Woodard and Gbenga Akinnagbe.

Seeing black characters dealing with mental-health issues on the big screen is still a rarity. Recently, Fox’s hit TV drama Empire has featured a character who suffers from bipolar disorder.

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“It is something we should talk out loud about and address,” Woodard said during a Q&A session Thursday after a screening of Knucklehead at New York City’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the film opened the New Voices in Black Cinema festival at BAMcinématek. The movie will replay on Sunday.

Woodard plays an abusive mother named Sheila who isn’t ashamed to start her mornings with a cocktail of gin and Tang. It’s a different type of role from what we’re used to seeing from Woodard, who made her name playing strong, positive women on film and TV.

When I told her that the role reminded me of Mo'Nique in Precious, Woodard reminded me of the “bad” mother she played in the 2000 TV movie Holiday Heart, directed by Robert Townsend.

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“You have to leave behind all of yourself and go there,” said Woodard, who admits that she was scared by Sheila at first. “I saw the face of abuse in my own family by the time I was 6 years old,” she continued. “I know how cruelty and powerlessness can force people into powerful cruelty, and so that’s what I wanted to make sure I brought to her.”

The actress said she took the role because she wanted to work with Akinnagbe. “I said yes when Gbenga called, and then I read the script … I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah,” said Woodard. “He is one of the few really fine actors working anywhere today.”

Akinnagbe owns the movie as Sheila’s long-suffering son, Langston, who has a developmental disorder that the film never identifies. Akinnagbe told The Root that it was a conscious decision, considering “how so many in the black community go undiagnosed,” he said.

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The actor—who shot to fame playing drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield’s enforcer Chris Partlow in HBO’s The Wire—said he knew the minute he read the script that he wanted to play the lead.

The supporting cast includes Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained), who plays his street-hustler brother, Julian; and young, up-and-coming actor Justin Myrick, who plays Art, a wisecracking sidekick who is much younger but wiser than Langston. The other unlikely star of the movie is Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where it was set and filmed in 2011.

Akinnagbe said he was so passionate about the film that he also signed on to produce it, along with several others, including co-writer and director Ben Bowman.

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“It was such an important story to be told,” Akinnagbe said. The actor explained that he grew up in and out of group homes and got to see firsthand how issues like mental illness within the black community are not addressed.

Bowman, who is not black, said he wrote the role of Langston in 2005 specifically for a black male lead. “The character was inspired by people I have known. But also it’s about looking into places where others have not looked in a way that rings true,” Bowman told The Root by email.

Bowman said that the idea for the script was inspired by all those prescription-drug ads seen on TV and in magazines. Akinnagbe’s character fantasizes about taking those drugs to make his “mind right.”

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“He has this impossible dream that he thinks is possible,” said Akinnagbe, who believes that it’s something many people can relate to.

Knucklehead packs an emotional punch while opening up a dialogue about mental illness in the black community, which is what both Bowman and Akinnagbe said they were hoping to do.

Right now the film doesn’t have a distributor. According to Bowman, they’re planning to enter the movie into film festivals around the country so that others can see it.

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“We felt we could fill a void of honestly told stories from the perspective of a black character who lives in between the system and the streets,” Bowman said via email. “We learned that if we start to tell everyone’s story truthfully, the talent shows up. And we know the audience does, too.”