When it comes to the relationship between mental health and films, there are a handful of movies that take the conversation on wholeheartedly. Of these, the majority tend toward iconic performances. Given the taboo topic, any filmmaker tasked with the stories of depression, anxiety, mood disorders and the like must rely so heavily on the performances of the actors to hit home with audiences. After all, in the age of sex, drugs, religion and politics, the only thing not discussed in mixed company is that of one’s own sanity. (But perhaps social media will push us past the final frontier of full disclosure and personal vulnerability.)
As National Mental Health Month wraps, here’s a last minute consideration of the power of film to push forward some public integrity to an under-addressed challenge that effects so many communities across our country. Thinking to those epic films on mental health, you must begin with Jack Nicholson’s iconic rouse of the topic in One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Next (1975). A story of worst case and incredibly questionable (remember the lobotomy) scenarios in mental health practices of the era.
The contemporary takes like Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) bring the conversation to a relatable place—family tension, unspoken apprehensions, and silent suffering. Very often these issues tend to be more powerful than mental disease because they often block discovery. Each critically acclaimed stories for their incredibly personal tones. But one of the most stark items missing from the conversation is the diversity of people and families who deal with mental health. After all, for all the films on thug life and drugs, the cool of being Black seems to overshadow the pain that comes with the tribulation with the most heralded gangster stories. As iconic as Black manhood has become with the rise of hip-hop, so too it carries its own struggles that suffer without an allowance for vulnerability. The conversation pops up at times like with She's Gotta Have It (1986) or The Brothers (2001), but over all, film plays to the challenge of Blacks being a population that does not do therapy.
Last year when the young star with a million dollar smile Lee Thompson Young died at age 29 of a self-inflicted gun wound, it was startling. Not only did the star shine in projects ranging from the Disney series The Famous Jett Jackson to his final work on Rizzoli & Isles, but he lived a private life outside of the TMZ terrain. He was not publicly associated with addiction and reckless partying. His death was a shock. The idea of Blacks and mental health challenges are not publicly or cinematically explored topics. But with his death falling into what was becoming a pattern of Black celebrity suicides, including legendary producer Don Cornelius, Squeaky Moore and Kenneth “KT” Nelson decided to turn to film to build a conversation for an audience long deserving a nod.
Moore and Nelson are the producers of the upcoming documentary, Face of Darkness, which is still in production and fundraising. As with narrative film, their documentary takes on the epic, not shying away from highlighting the the celebrities who have fallen to suicide. Their project focuses on the impact of silencing mental health as an illness for for Black men. Featuring testimonials from Young’s father, Tommy Scott Young, and experts including author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We Are Not Hurting Terrie Williams, the project has picked up wide support. Nelson explains,”We have gotten e-mails, text messages, and Facebook posts from around the world. People are suffering.”
So when Moore and Nelson recently hosted a preview at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Harlem, New York, both Lee Thompson Young’s father and Williams joined them. Williams, whose book includes personal accounts from celebrities including Mary J. Blige and James Amos, shared her concern that just as with physical health there is mix of faith and professional practice intervene, she hopes Face of Darkness will inspire more Blacks. “We learn to take everything to God in prayer, but I know that it was my God led me to my psychiatrist,” Williams compelled the full house. “We usually answer ‘I’m fine,’ but we’re really dying on the inside."
Williams remarks echo the stats from the National Alliance on Mental Illness that cite, “African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though this may at times be necessary. The health care providers they seek may not be aware of this important aspect of personal life.” Given the further both that Blacks make up less than 5 percent of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, film may be the most effective tool to correct this social bias.
For Moore, the conversation on mental health is one she understands from personal experience. "Perspective is everything. We just need the space for considering the pervasiveness of mental health on our communities. Face of Darkness aims to be just that space."
In moving away from narrative film to documentary to hit the nail on the head, Moore and Nelson hope to allow Black men to find outlets while also opening up Black masculinity to include moments of vulnerability. They believe in film as anecdote, and judging by the packed audience they met at the Schomberg, the two are well on their way to turning the tide.
For more information on how to support the project, visit faceofdarknessdocumentary.com.