Langston Bellows (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is on a mission. He needs to become mentally excellent so he can move out of his mother’s house and get a place with his girlfriend Felicia. Unfortunately for Langston, there are no cures for his developmental delays and no real opportunities for someone of his mental capacities to be independent in his Brooklyn neighbourhood.
Knucklehead takes a compassionate look at Langston’s journey as he desperately tries to fix himself and find a life of his own. Director Ben Bowman does a great job of getting into Langston’s head and state of mind. The film’s rhythmic editing and an incredibly thoughtful performance from Akinnagbe raises Langston beyond the stereotype that so many developmentally challenged characters on screen are reduced to. There is a great deal of compassion afforded to Langston, which makes Knucklehead tug at the heart strings. He might not be very “smart” in a conventional sense, but he has a lot to offer than no one around him seems to see. It’s heartbreaking to watch him struggle for acceptance and independence as everyone around him uses and abuses him.
For a film that treats a man like Langston with such compassion, it is disappointing that same courtesy is not extended to the women on screen. It really is a shame as on the whole, Knucklehead is a wonderfully nuanced and beautifully crafted film, especially coming from a first-time director. At a grand total of four, each female character is either a crazy bitch or a prize to be won. His mother Sheila (Alfre Woodard) is horribly abusive and controlling, preventing Langston from having any semblance of a life separate from her. While Woodard manages to infuse some compassion into this horrible woman, the film itself never lets her be more than Langston’s abusive mother. Given the context of the film, it’s easy to fill in the blanks of her life and Woodard’s performance makes you want to put in that extra work, but the film itself isn’t interested in painting her as anything more than a horrible and violent force in Langston’s life.
The girlfriend of Langston’s brother fares even worse as she actually gets described as a crazy bitch on screen. The film clearly feels that this is the only plausible explanation that she resorts to the violent measures that she does. While her actions are extreme, she has clearly been treated like shit her entire life, teased, demeaned and made to feel worthless. It’s no wonder that she snaps. Unfortunately, Bowman (who also penned the script) writes her off as insane because, clearly no sane person would react like she did in a similar situation.
The other two women in the film (three if you count the unnamed, silent woman who sits in Sheila’s apartment) aren’t given any consideration outside of their obvious function as sexual objects. Langston and his brother (Amari Cheatom) have an entire conversation where they refer to women as pussies and while it’s clear that Langston is just parroting Julian’s attitudes, this doesn’t change the fact that the film itself seems to believe that women are men’s playthings. Felicia is a prize for Langston when he achieves his goal of mental excellence. He might not think that way, but the filmmakers sure do.
The argument can be made that Knucklehead is portraying specific individuals and that this is how these individuals treat women, but that does not give the film itself a pass in condoning this misogynistic behaviour. Julian is in many ways just as terrible a human being as his mother, but Bowman paints him as a roguish hero who might cross a line now and then. He gets the chance to interact with Langston and show him some compassion, fleshing out his character and making him into a person, not an object or a plot device. The same chance is not afforded to Sheila.
There is a lot to like about Knucklehead. Langston is a great character that the filmmakers clearly took a lot of time to treat with respect and get right. That makes the film’s treatment of women so infuriating. With the rest of the film pushing the boundaries of representation, it could have taken the time to include women as an integral and fully formed part of the process.
Knucklehead screens as part of the Toronto Black Film Festival tonight, February 13th at 9pm at AGO Jackman Hall. Prior to the screening Alfre Woodard will be present to receive the 2016 TBFF Career Achievement Award. Click here for more details.