KNUCKLEHEAD writer-director Ben Bowman had a particular timeline his feature directorial debut. With co-writer Bryan Abrams, they found a story that set them on fire and figured that, “we were going to do it fast and get it done quickly, and we’d have it made within a year—that was our plan.”
That was March 25, 2005. After 10 years, and two instances of losing funding, KNUCKLEHEAD was produced, shot, edited, and scored. This little gem made its debut at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) on March 26, 2015 to sold-out audiences. Ten years and a day past its inception.
Talk about the best laid schemes of mice and men.
In a similar vein to the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men”, KNUCKLEHEAD is centered on Langston Bellows, who suffers from an unstated, but obvious developmental disability, and desires to be “mentally excellent”. Like the Lennie character in “Of Mice and Men”, Langston has what is essentially an impossible dream that fuels his life and gives him hope. Langston also has a protector—his brother Julian who shields him from their abusive mother Sheila, and an unsafe world— just as George, the central character in “Of Mice and Men”, protected Lennie from the abusive boss Curly, and the outside world.
Lennie never realizes his dream, and neither does Langston; but just as the reader latches on to Lennie’s world and roots for him despite the obvious obstacles and sinking suspicions that things will go awry, so the viewer will root for Langston. Bowman has discovered a winning story and a character that captures the heart, the soul, and the imagination with its truth; no matter how uncomfortable and raw that truth may be.
“That’s one of the things that was important, that’s the nature of that film—it’s the kind of film we chose to make, Bowman said. “In the end, it’s our responsibility as storytellers to tell something truthful. I think Gbenga [Akinnagbe] delivers that in his performance, and Bryan Abrams, my co-writer and I, that was certainly our measure when we were writing.”
With a primarily Black cast that includes the compellingly intense Gbenga Akinnagbe (“Langston”), the incomparable veteran Alfre Woodard (“Sheila”), and the charismatic up-and-comer Amari Cheatom (“Julian”), white writer-director Bowman, and his co-writer (also white) Bryan Abrams craft an urban story about faith and struggle from a different perspective that is often overlooked by writers and directors of any color. Akinnagbe and Woodard believed in the project so much that they are both producers of the film, assisting with the necessary financial and name-backing required for the project to find its full fruition.
“I’ll tell you,” Bowman said. “Working with Alfre Woodard was one of the most—she’s just one of those giving, creative people. She just really brings everything, and puts it right in your hand, and she backs you up. I don’t know if she does it for everybody, but for whatever reason, she did it for me.”
Woodard’s performance as Sheila, the drunken and diabolical mother of Langston is equally frightful and gut-wrenching; it is a role where Woodard truly does “bring it.”
“I thought that was the highlight, but it wasn’t,” Bowman continued. “It was when she saw the movie and she loved it. And she got it. And then she’s out there, she’s out there pushing it with us. Knowing that someone that I hold in a high regard sees it, and gets it, and is willing to put her name on the line for it—that makes it worth it.”
Despite the fact that Bowman is a 20-year resident of Brooklyn, and also lived two years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the movie is centered, a white director helming a Black-focused movie stirred a bit of controversy at BAM. The Q&A after the film was a little intense for the director, but he stood his ground in the need to see these characters come to life, no matter who was behind the lens. “This story that my co-writer and I fell in love with happened to be about Black people,” Bowman said. “There certainly should be more [stories about Black people]. I think it’s a good filter to use an experience that is not quite your own to tell a story.”
“I think it’s important that when you’re doing that, you have a certain responsibility to be truthful, and I hold myself to that standard,” Bowman continued. “I think the biggest thing is the movie should live on its merits whoever made it. I’ll stand by this movie; I’ll put it up against Oscar winners.”
KNUCKLEHEAD returns to New York City for the American Black Film Festival at the AMC Empire 25 Theaters on Friday, June 12, then premieres at the San Francisco Black Film Festival on Saturday June 13 at the Buriel Clay Theater.