On Black mental health narratives in film
Scholars have demonstrated that there is an increasing stigma of mental health in Black/African-American communities. In recent years, there has been an even bigger call to normalize mental health, and subsequently, a need for more representation from those who are Black/African-American and battling mental illnesses to share their stories within Black communities and with the larger world, for non-Black people to also see. While many researchers and mental health advocates have called out Hollywood for the general lack of representation on screen regarding Black mental health, how are the few Black mental health narratives that are present in film and television depicted? In this case study, I have analyzed the two films Radio (2003) and The Soloist (2009). Both based on true stories, these films detail the lives and stories of Black men with varying mental disabilities/illnesses. Analysis of both films reveals similar depictions of “otherness” concerning both men in the films, showcases the difficulty in often diagnosing a mental illness/disability, and the attached underlying fear of harassment or “detainment” by authoritative forces from those who may not understand one’s mental condition, as well provides nuanced characterizations of both men and their experiences.
Many of our first conceptualizations and introductions to different types of people occur through the screen, as movies and television are the places in which we look to see ourselves and the perspectives of others. They represent a platform where beautiful stories are shared, but they can also be where harmful stereotypes are created and internalized. Thus, it is important to not only have accurate representations of people on screen, but to have different versions of those same people shown as well.
Black mental health is a perspective that has not had much representation on the screen, and it is a topic that has been taboo at the Black family dinner table, as well as in the larger community, for quite some time. While the manifestation of the mental health stigma in Black communities has many historical ties and other social and cultural factors, the lack of representation and stories in media, along with the misinformation spread concerning mental health, only further increases the stigma. The majority of films in which we see anything closely related to Black mental health are films portraying traumatic events, such as slavery or police brutality, and in these films, we often see only the struggle of the characters, yet never healing and reconciliation with self or a larger discussion of the trauma that lasts post-traumatic event. In addition, we always see the characters “being strong” in the face of adversity of their trauma—but what does this say to those suffering from similar traumas watching these stories unfold on the screen?
In a year where it has been declared that alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, we are also suffering through a mental health crisis, the discussion on mental health and breaking the stigma within the Black community is more important than ever. Having accurate and diverse depictions of Black people with mental illnesses, disabilities, and/or discussions on overall mental health is one way to normalize and start the discussion within the community; it is a way for information to be spread about different people’s experiences with different mental conditions. The significance of hearing or seeing one story where someone has, not only dealt with a similar mental illness or trauma, but has also navigated healing/living well with it, can be the difference of saving a Black life, and film has the power to make these stories more widely accessible to all.
For this reason, I have chosen to center my research on a content analysis on two of the few films that chose to tell the stories of two Black men with varying mental illnesses and/or disabilities. This analysis seeks to explore how Black people and their mental conditions are depicted in film, and I hope to find that these stories move past depicting those with mental illnesses or disabilities as violent, disruptive, defiant, and limited to their disabilities.
There have been few studies done quite recently on the portrayals of mental health narratives in film and television. In a study released by University of Southern California, “Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV: Portrayals That Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters,” the authors found that popular television rarely includes mental health narratives and characters, and out of those narratives represented, around 80 percent of the characters with mental health portrayals in film are white (more than 50 percent being white males).1 Even with various ethnic groups (including Hispanic/Latino individuals) having the highest percentages of mental health conditions in their communities, BIPOC are extremely underrepresented in these narratives.2 This study further discusses how this lack of representation or exacerbation of a certain group creates inclusion disparities among characters in film and television and dehumanizes mental health conditions in storytelling. For this reason, the depictions of various racial and cultural groups and their mental health experiences, outside of disparagement and humor, are necessary, as many of these behaviors and conceptualizations can be repeated and internalized off of the screen.
This importance of telling inclusive stories is why within my study, understanding the conceptualizations of Blackness, the variety in Black experience, and the ways in which Blackness has already been depicted in film are essential to analyzing how Black men with mental illnesses and disabilities are explored in the films on which my case study focuses. In chapter five of John Jackson’s Harlem World: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, “White Harlem: Toward the Performative Limits of Blackness,” Jackson takes us through various discussions he has had on the different ways people describe “race.” Through talking about “White” and “Black Harlem,” ideas of “doing whiteness,” as well as the “performance of Blackness,” emerge. Within this idea, race is theorized to be something that is defined through certain characteristics and behaviors.3 Similarly, Wizdom Hammond and Jaqueline Mattis, in their article “Being a Man About It: Manhood Meaning Among African American Men,” define some of the main conceptualizations of Black masculinity through the need to perform certain behaviors of Blackness and masculinity as well. Being able to provide and hold autonomy, for Black men, is too often important, though not always achieved due to systemic gendered racism, socio-environmental influences, and other developmental factors.4 With both films depicting the stories of Black men with mental illnesses/disabilities, it is important to ask: how do these “performed” behaviors—of Blackness and Black masculinity— show themselves? Or do they? How does racial and gendered performance manifest itself within the experiences of those who may learn to socialize differently due to certain aspects of their mental conditions?
When thinking about Black mental health and disability, intersectionality comes to play in more ways than one. There is already a significant amount of stigma toward those with mental illnesses, but the connotation with violence is often high. In “Violence and Mental Illness,” authors Marie E. Rueve and Randon S. Welton seek out to study this “phenomena” that has emerged between violence and mental health, particularly sensationalized in media and entertainment. When looking into the mentally ill population, the article comes to a conclusion that many patients with stable mental health actually do not present an increased risk of violence more than anyone else in society. Yet, mental health patients are still “three times as likely to be arrested as the general population”— the charges usually being based on behaviors that are “direct manifestations of the patients’ then untreated symptoms.”5 Thus, when these behaviors can act as catalysts for direct criminalization, the intersection of the “behaviors” seen from one’s “Blackness” and “Black masculinity” seemingly could work to create a much higher risk of being detained by police and other authoritative forces.
In the article, “The Trauma Lens of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” author Thema Bryant-Davis (and a few others) note how these similar conditioned racial anxieties and stereotypes of Black people create the racial paranoia that can lead to the police harassment and brutality of ethnic minorities. In Harlem World, Jackson states that “white people have a luxury and security in their whiteness,” a luxury that allows white people to behave in a way that may be denied to Black people, for the fear of being killed.6 In this way, Black people’s behaviors and actions dictate how one is viewed by white people, and/or others, and often utilized to determine one’s Blackness, and more importantly, “Black life chances.”
This concept of the Black body and how it is viewed is also essential when it comes to Black racial representation in film. In“The Black Body: Figures of Distortion,” chapter three of Adilifu Nama’s book Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, the author acknowledges the idea of “spectacle” and of the Black body being seen, in the majority of all American cinema, even outside of science-fiction films. She addresses the fascination with Black male sexuality in sci-fi films and the racial paranoia shown, as well as how it finds itself generating symbolic messages in these films that further push the idea of “whiteness” as the “better” alternative— sci-fi films “chronically affirming white heterosexual heroism” often juxtaposed to a Black, “alien,” body.7 Overall, Nama acknowledges how racial stereotypes are/can be amplified through the way the Black body is shown on screen—“a representational canvas” for signifying “alien unsightliness, fear, danger, [and] social inferiority.”8
Methods and Data
For this case study, the films Radio (2003) and The Soloist (2009) serve as data to be analyzed within the scope of Black mental health narratives in film. I chose these films as they are two of the few Black mental health narratives that have premiered in theaters, with both having fairly successful Black male actors of the time period play the two main characters— Cuba Gooding Jr. as James “Radio” Kennedy (Radio) and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers (The Soloist). Utilizing these two films also proved significant with both being “true story” depictions: as Radio tells the story of a Black man in his early twenties with an intellectual disability in rural South Carolina, and The Soloist presents the life of a middle-aged Black man with paranoid schizophrenia who frequently spends his time playing the violin on Skid Row in Los Angeles, California.
The main objective for my content analysis was to compare and contrast the depictions of mental illness/disability in these films. Further questions within this analysis included: How is mental illness/disability addressed and discussed within the film? Is their proper or accurate information given about both mental conditions? And are the men portrayed as violent, disruptive, or “othered” in the films? Additionally, I further analyzed the ways in which racial conceptualizations—performances of “whiteness” and “Blackness”—and its attached behaviors intersected with the “behaviors” and generalizations of people with mental illnesses/disabilities—the goal: to exemplify how different racial backgrounds can affect one’s experience with mental health, and thus, why having these stories represented on screen are essential to decreasing the stigma.
In both films, Radio and The Soloist, the “otherness” of both characters is depicted in the very beginning of the two narratives. In Radio, the film opens up with a montage of James “Radio” Kennedy walking through various parts of the town with his shopping cart—which holds many of his belongings and his radio(s)— to which his nickname is given. In the scene where Radio pushes his cart through the town, we see other townspeople either stare at Radio in confusion or disdain, and the film even goes as far as showing a white woman pushing her kid along away from Radio and his cart when crossing the street. While Radio is unbothered by the stares of the people in town, the opening scene establishes Radio’s “otherness” and peculiarity, already depicting that he is “different” from everyone else.
As viewers, our introduction to Nathaniel Ayers in The Soloist is quite similar. We first meet Ayers at a Beethoven statue in downtown Los Angeles’s Pershing Square. He is playing his violin when Steve Lopez (the L.A. Times reporter who later forms a life-long friendship with Ayers) crosses his path. Ayers too has a shopping cart that, however, holds all of his belongings. Ayers playing often alone on Skid Row in Los Angeles, again, establishes his “otherness” that is often, too, generally associated with the homeless population in general.
When it comes to the exploration and descriptions of the two mental illnesses/disabilities in these two films, their approaches vary. In Radio, Radio is described as merely “different” by others trying to label his “disability.” His mother, Maggie in the film, even expresses that the doctors never really gave them a diagnosis for “it,” just said “he’s slower than most.” (Though, this lack of insight on his disability may be due to the lack of research and access to resources for Radio, James Kennedy, and his family at the time he was born and grew up, from the late 1940s through the 1960s.) Later in the film, as Radio becomes more immersed in the community through Coach Jones and the town’s high school football team, the school board and parents begin to characterize Radio as “severely handicapped,” often describing Radio and his disability as a “risk” and/or “disruptive force.” While in Radio’s case, most of his mental condition is represented through others’ (often “othering”) conceptualizations and an ambiguous diagnosis, Nathaniel Ayers’s paranoid schizophrenia is given more of a definitive representation, and the portrayal of his story in this film allows for the viewer to see the manifestation of his illness through his childhood up until adulthood.
In The Soloist, we are able to see how Ayers’s obsessive and compulsive behaviors manifest in his love and obsession with playing cello and Beethoven. The film also showcases the beginning of Ayers’s hallucinations and hearing of voices when he was a student at renowned arts conservatory Juilliard, as well as how racism and his comprehension of his racial identity presented itself within these hallucinations. A notable scene shows Ayers in an orchestra rehearsal at school, surrounded by white classmates, when he hears the voices in his head repeat to him that the white people are staring at him and judging him. “Run away Nathaniel,” they say, which results in Ayers locking himself in a dressing room closet at the school.
Despite the “otherness” displayed amidst both the main characters in these two films, the two men are otherwise depicted as non-violent and “big-hearted,” or given nuanced characterizations of each of their violent or disruptive “outbursts.” In Radio, most of the comments on his “disruptive behavior” either come from hypotheticals based on generalizations and a lack of information of people with mental disabilities, which is most clearly shown through the the reaction to having Radio participate as a student at T.L. Hanna High: “None of us has the experience of having a severely [intellectually disabled person] roam the same halls as our students . . . the risk is enormous” which is said by someone sent front the school board in the film. Or, the “disruptions” are created by others who manipulate Radio, which we see in the scene where Radio is told by Johnny, the quarterback of the football team, that a teacher wants him to get something out of the girls’ locker room, lying to Radio about no one being in there, when it was full of undressed high school girls. In this instance, Radio is not only embarrassed (causing him to chastise himself “Bad Radio, Bad Radio…”) but also gets in trouble from the school; however, the film also humanizes Radio here, displaying his ability to still showcase compassion as he apologizes to Coach Jones for the accident but does not “rat out” Johnny.
Though, for this same reason, Radio’s mom and other loved ones are often worried about his safety, as his mom explains in the beginning of the film, “Figure they only gonna need one excuse to put em’ away… James is a good boy, coach. He got himself a good heart. Most folks just don’t take the time to see it is all.” This same worry is seen in The Soloist as well; however, with Ayers’ there is an added fear and worry about him inflicting violence upon himself, especially after an intense episode of paranoia (which in the film results in Lopez running around the city to find Ayers, almost thinking Ayers was beaten when he sees a pool of blood and ambulance by LAMP, the community center, until Ayers taps Mr. Lopez on the shoulder and speaks to him, relieving Lopez of his worries.)
Ayers in The Soloist is also depicted as “gifted” and often pretty polite, always addressing Steve Lopez by his surname with an added prefix, “Do you think about writers Mr. Lopez? Do you think about writers the way I think about musicians?” Even though Ayers experiences a lot more “outbursts” and violent reactions than Radio, his outbursts are often in reaction to his schizophrenia being triggered, either by large crowds, reminders of his experience at Juilliard (in the scene where Lopez pushes him to do a recital), or his independence being challenged. The latter portrayal is seen particularly in a later scene of the film where Ayers pins Lopez to the LAMP apartment floor and threatens him: “I don’t go where you say go. I go where I wanna go. You don’t put me away Mr. Lopez. You don’t put me away.” It is an immediate reaction to Lopez delivering Ayers papers that detail his paranoid schizophrenia and insists he begins medication.
While both Radio’s and Nathaniel Ayers’ “otherness” is showcased in the two films through the “odd” behaviors that stem from the different aspects of their individual mental conditions, it can be questioned how much of this otherness may also come from their perceived Blackness as well. Going back to the opening scene of Radio, it can be noted that Radio was one of the few Black people, specifically Black young men, in the town, as well as throughout the movie— the only other main Black people being Radio’s mom, the school principal, and a few of the football players. What is interesting about Radio as a film, and Radio as a character and real-life person, is that his involvement with Coach Jones came at a time where schools had just been integrated in Anderson, South Carolina. In an article written after James “Radio” Kennedy’s death in December of 2019, a former teacher who had been around during Radio’s time at T.L. Hanna High expressed that Radio was someone who actually helped bridge the white and Black communities in the 1960s, at a time when racial integration in South Carolina was just happening.9 Therefore, the scene in Radio in which Kennedy is delivering presents out of his shopping cart around Christmas time and is arrested by a local white cop because the gifts are presumed to be stolen can be analyzed through an intersectional lens.
In this scene, when Radio decided to continue pushing his shopping cart aside of the officer’s questioning—as he mostly figured he was not in the wrong—Radio was violently pinned onto the police car even though Radio showed no violent behavior toward him. In this sense, one could pose the question(s): Was the arrest due to the behaviors of the “untreated symptoms” of his mental condition that Rueve and Welton discuss in their article, that occurs with mentally ill patients, or was it due to the racial anxieties and conceptualizations of the Black body often perceived by white people expressed in Bryant-Davis’s “The Trauma Lens of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities”?10,11Was it because of Radio’s inability to communicate “well” due to aspects of his intellectual disability, or was it Radio’s inability to “act white” in a time where the Black body was feared? Or an intersection of both? These questions regarding the intersection of Blackness and mental ability need further research and exploration in and outside of film, as the conceptualizations and stereotypes of both identities are possibly what increase the likelihood of being killed or harassed by the police being Black with a mental illness, which has been a serious issue within the Black community in recent years.
While both films create portrayals of two men with mental illnesses/disabilities as being non-violent and non-fearful people, they also depict two Black men “escorted” into mainstream society by able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgendered white men, which mimics the “white heterosexual heroism” described in Nama’s writing on Black bodily representation in American cinema. Though, The Soloist does challenge this “white savior” complex and ableist mentality, within the ending arc of the film, as Lopez comes to an understanding in the end that he cannot just “change Ayers” by giving him access to medication and medical treatment and telling him “what is best for him.” One of the most poignant scenes in this film occurs within the last twenty minutes where Lopez’s ex-wife, Mary, tells him “You’re not going to cure Nathaniel. Just be his friend and show up.” This emphasis on community and positive socialization in the film is significant, as research shows that out of the patients who are violent, their violence usually stems from past experiences, biologic-environmental interactions, and psychosocial factors that contribute to the development of violent behaviors.12 Therefore, both films exhibit how having social support and positive socialization can not only aid in additional treatment and stress management, but also improve those with mental illnesses and/or disabilities likelihood to have their own independence, healthy friendships, and better quality of life.
Lastly, while both films prove significant in having overall positive Black mental health representation on screen, it is important to acknowledge that both films depict the stories of two (to be assumed) heterosexual, cisgendered, Black males. Thinking back to Jackson’s statement in Harlem World that “the performative understandings of racial differences” are simultaneously gendered, it follows that the narratives of Black women, as well as Black queer individuals, are important ones to be further explored and represented in film.13 Additionally, seeing as the Black women that are present in both films are both characterized as the caretakers, at some point, of both Kennedy and Ayers, it is also essential to explore the ways in which taking care of those with severe mental illnesses and/or disabilities, (especially people like Ayers with paranoid schizophrenia) can also lead to possible psychological trauma and stress.
Although there is a common sense of “otherness” depicted in these films, they also manage to capture the humanity of the two Black men with mental illnesses/disabilities, which works to destigmatize this same “otherness.” Nevertheless, with these two films being two of the very few Black mental health narratives in circulation, this study also showcases that there is a dire need for more stories that navigate Black mental health—within Black families, from a younger age, and that explores these experiences beyond cisgendered Black males, as overall, there needs to be more representation of Black women and their stories on screen that moves beyond the “caretaker” archetype.
With future films that are hopefully created around Black mental health narratives, it will be important to have stories that exhibit nuanced depictions of mental health experiences that explore various intersections within different identities (ie. class, gender, sexuality, etc.) Studying these intersections will not only create accurate representations on the screen, but will also be useful in further research to do with social issues, such as the mass criminalization and harassment of Black people with mental health conditions that is essentially killing more Black people each day. It will also be necessary to have similar relationships like those of Coach Jones and Radio and Ayers and Lopez shown within Black-Black relationships, hopefully emphasizing and showcasing the value in helping each other break the stigma within the Black community and further looking for ways to generate mental health resources for ourselves.
- Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Angel Choi, Katherine Pieper, and Christine Moutier, “Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV: Portrayals That Dehumanize and Trivialize Characters,” University of Southern California, Annenberg; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; and The David and Laurel Lovell Foundatiom (2019).
- Smith et al., “Mental Health Conditions in Film & TV.”
- John Jackson, “White Harlem: Toward the Performative Limits of Blackness,” Harlem World: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 159-190.
- Wizdom Hammond and Jacqueline Mattis, “Being a Man About It: Manhood Meaning Among African American Men,” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 6 (2005): 114-126.
- Marie E Rueve and Randon S Welton, “Violence and Mental Illness,” Psychiatry 5, no. 5 (2008): 34-48.
- Jackson, “White Harlem,” 176.
- Adilifu Nama, “The Black Body: Figures of Distortion,” Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, (University of Texas Press, 2008).
- Nama, “The Black Body: Figures of Distortion,” 73.
- Zoe Nicholson, “‘Radio Taught Us to Love’: Anderson Community Remembers James ‘Radio’ Kennedy at Funeral,” The Greenville News, Anderson Independent Mail, December 23, 2019.
- Revue and Welton, “Violence and mental illness.”
- Bryant-Davis’s “The Trauma Lens of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities.”
- Rueve and Welton, “Violence and mental illness.”
- Jackson, “White Harlem.”