Fist in air, menacing look on face, actress Alfre Woodard stands ready to punch. The object of her anger is actor Gbenga Akinnagbe. Withering in fear, trying to escape her grip, she repeatedly smashes a fist into his sweaty face as thick blood drips from a red, oozing knot raised in his forehead.
Of course both are in character. Woodard plays Sheila, the abusive alcoholic mother to Akinnagbe’s mentally challenged role as Langston—a grown man with the mentality of child, searching for healing and understanding on the unapologetic streets of Brooklyn. Full of heavy emotion, ripe with a timely take on mental illness in the black community, the film Knucklehead resonates with many.
“I saw the face of abuse in my own family by the time I was 6 years old in my own neighborhood. And I also recognize it in the face of people,” says Woodard, attending the Act Now Foundation’s New Voices in Black Cinema Festival in Brooklyn. “We all have it. Maybe we keep it in check. I know how cruelty and power lessens and forces us into cruelty.”
Winner of multiple Emmys, a Golden Globe, SAG Award, Oscar and Grammy nominations, Woodard is a phenomenon when it comes to the big and small screen. She’s well known for popping up in independent films from time to time, working for free, and taking roles for the love of art. Woodard’s four-decade career spans from stage to TV and film, going back to the 1970s as a girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, ballsy enough to move to L.A. and pursue her dream of bringing truth and words to life.
“As an artist and someone who responds to the word, I don’t come onto anything that doesn’t take me. I’m married to a writer. I go all the way with the word. You can’t walk away from the writer’s riot,” she says of her character choices and involvement with Knucklehead. “I trusted that I would translate what needed to be translated, and I knew Gbenga would. I came on because Gbenga called me up. He is one of the really fine actors working today.”
As both star and executive producer, Gbenga Akinnagbe was the great connector between Woodard’s involvement and Knucklehead being made. Reading the script years ago, he chased down the film’s co-writer and director Ben Bowman to do what needed to be done to breathe life into a project difficult to finance. Like a throbbing migraine that wouldn’t go away, Gbenga couldn’t get the pain of Knucklehead out of his head.
“I grew up around this. In and out of the system. Hospitals. This was close to home. And I think this is why I wanted to make it,” says the Washington, DC native (currently on TV every week as a FBI agent on Fox’s creepy hit The Following). “I’ve made other films. [Knucklehead] felt like another movie that would never happen. But it didn’t die. I had to make it.”
Although Woodard’s initial reaction to the material was “Yes,” overthinking and second thoughts creeped in. “I read the material and was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ And then I got scared. I didn’t want to go there to Sheila land,” says Woodard, who agreed to be featured as a servant that marries her slave master in the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave, without reading the script. “I knew something about Sheila because she named [her son] Langston. She’s got knowledge. She has to manipulate or express her frustration through rage.”
Fresh off its New Voices in Black Cinema Festival screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Knucklehead makes the rounds bringing intense conversation about the truths of economic inequality, child abuse, unhealed mental illness and disturbing ills that make many move in theater-seat discomfort. “It’s a cruelty born out of passion, love, frustration and guilt,” Woodard says of her character’s penchant toward household violence. “Whenever somebody’s got their first raised, you can look straight into their eyes and see a cowardly person. So it’s not being afraid to tell the story. Everybody’s got a story.”
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality and activist. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in November 2015.