Hollywood has a lot of films that depict mental health diagnoses, mostly starring white actors. Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Russell Crowe, among others, are all Academy Award-winners or -nominees because of those roles. However, films depicting Black mental health struggles are almost nonexistent. This is despite the fact that Black Americans are more likely to have mental health issues, face psychiatric hospitalizations, and attempt suicide.
The few depictions of mental disorders in Black characters are either based on relationship issues or racial/societal trauma to tell a larger story about the Black experience in America. And the focus is rarely on treatment, which can be complex due to resource access barriers. Why does something bad have to happen to a Black character to explain their diagnosis?
Yes, there are also films about white characters whose traumatic experiences lead to mental and emotional disorders. However, white characters often exist with a mental health diagnosis without a traumatic cause behind its origins. They have multiple types of mental health stories. Black movie mental health stories are always tied to a negative past experience, if they are central in the story at all. Which brings us to All the Bright Places, a story with intriguing potential.
Michele K. Short/Netflix
The Netflix film, based on a young adult novel of the same name, follows two high school students facing grief and mental health diagnoses. The book’s male co-lead Finch is a white, pale character with blue eyes. However, the film features Black actor Justice Smith as Finch. It’s not clear if the filmmakers purposely changed Finch’s race, but with this casting choice the movie becomes a portrayal of a Black character with bipolar disorder. But unlike in the book, Finch’s manic and depressive cycles are never properly named in the movie, leaving much ambiguity.
The story is also told mainly from the perspective of Violet, the white female lead. Finch’s character is the young yet wise magical teen who saves Violet from her grief without addressing his own health problems. This is different from the book, where we get a better insight on Finch’s thoughts, emotions, and fascination with death.
Halfway through the movie, Violet sees a scar on Finch’s chest. He tells her about his depressed and abusive father. This injury and trauma are made to be contributors to his mental health struggles; Finch’s diagnosis is not allowed to just exist on its own. Throughout the movie, Finch pushes his friends, his family, even the co-lead Violet away when he’s in a dark headspace. The guidance counselor tries to help, offering support and suggesting group therapy, which are all rejected until the very end. The story ends tragically with Finch’s suicide, becoming yet another portrayal of untreated bipolar disorder.
Halle Berry’s portrayal of a woman with dissociative identity disorder in Frankie & Alice is the rare movie that does showcase a medical diagnosis and proper psychiatric treatment. This goes against the cultural stigma about Black Americans not seeking mental health treatment. However, her diagnosis likewise ends up being tied to a previous traumatic experience. Other examples include Chris Tucker’s brief appearance in Silver Linings Playbook, which is a rare depiction of Black patients in psychiatric hospitals; and movies like Precious, which connect mental health issues to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence towards children, and other things that can be the unfortunate results of no medical resources.
Television is slowly getting better at showcasing the mental health struggles of Black people. In scripted shows, we’re seeing more stories about people seeking treatment through proper medical care. For example, on This Is Us, Randall Pearson’s continuing struggles with anxiety is a central tenet of his story. We see flashbacks of his non-trauma-based panic attacks, dialogue about his post breakdown hospitalization, and honest conversations with his wife Bethany about going to therapy.
Blackish‘s Rainbow Johnson faces postpartum depression after giving birth to her youngest son. She goes to a doctor to talk about her struggles and get medication. To destigmatize getting help, Rainbow talks to her older kids about her mental health.
To combat the stigma of mental health issues among people of color, Hollywood is going to have to show all aspects of mental health. Yes, we need stories of pain, suicide, and depression. These stories reflect the lack of access to care for some Black people. But we also need stories of successful treatment and psychiatric interventions as a brave step to save a life, rather than a source of shame.
We need to stop showing mental health disorders existing only as a result of horrible past events. Sometimes people just have mental health struggles, and that’s okay. Black mental health stories need their Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence dancing moment, or their Perks of Being a Wallflower tunnel scene. Enough with the Black trauma films.
Featured Image: Michele K. Short/Netflix