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Black People, We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Black people, if you’re reading this, we need to talk.

We need to discuss something that often goes unmentioned in our community. Actually, there are two things we need to talk about: mental illness and suicide. I don’t know how, why, or when we began treating these two issues as taboo, verboten. But it has to stop, for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with the Washington Post article that was published earlier this year stating that, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among black children in the U.S. under eighteen are up 71 percent in the past decade, from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016, while suicide among children thirteen and under rose 114 percent those ten years. (In the same period, the suicide rate among all children also went up 64 percent.)

The article also mentions how researchers are unsure what has fueled this rise, citing either racism toward high-risk black children or the black community itself for continuing to ignore suicide as a major issue. It can be both those things. When it comes to bullying, children of color often get hit — physically and verbally — the hardest. It isn’t even always white kids who are the ones slamming black kids with damaging taunts and epithets. The worst abuse can often come from your own kind, as in the flashback episode from the recent season of Atlanta, where a young kid gets ripped to shreds by other black kids for allegedly wearing a fake FUBU shirt — and that young kid ends up taking his own life.

I certainly remember how, as a kid going through middle school hell in the late Eighties, I was often picked on by my fellow black classmates for the usual stuff: looking broke, being too dark-skinned (back in my day, being called “Shaka Zulu” was a major insult), giving off a “homo” vibe. Sadly, even when we become full-grown adults, those are still things that continue to plague black people. As Huberta Jackson-Lowman, Ph.D., president of the Association of Black Psychologists, told the Atlanta Black Star last year, “The issues that black youth and children bully each other about are those issues about which we as black adults have unresolved and [conflicted] feelings and which are also viewed negatively or with great ambivalence by the larger society.”

African Americans have to embody strength even when it feels like our legs are about to give out from how much we have to carry as a culture. If you’re seen exhibiting vulnerability or emotion, you’re considered weak or — dare I say it! — gay! We don’t talk about our feelings or none of that bullshit! We’re the descendants of men and women who were taken from their land and forced into slavery. Whatever problems you got ain’t got shit on what they had to deal with! You can’t off yourself just because you’re going through some stuff — suck it up, goddammit! And, besides, suicide is a white-people thing!

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And there it is. In African American culture, suicide and mental illness are regularly perceived as issues that mainly affect the Anglo-American populace. Once again, I don’t know where this came from, but it’s something that has made black people distance themselves from psychiatrists, therapists, or any other mental-health professionals. (To quote a Chris Rock line, the only way black people are going to see a therapist is if the court orders them to do it.) There are black folk who also prefer to confer with religious folk and “pray away” their mental troubles instead of getting proper treatment. Not to knock anyone’s religious beliefs, but pastors aren’t medical experts. Then again, since African Americans are often mistreated and neglected by our healthcare system, it’s easy to see why going to a person of faith would be seen as an acceptable substitute.  

It doesn’t help that famous African Americans with mental health issues rarely discuss their problems, especially after they’ve had a very public meltdown. Seventeen years ago, Mariah Carey appeared on Total Request Live, schlepping around an ice cream cart and freaking out the audience and host Carson Daly with her erratic behavior. This led to her getting checked into a mental facility a few days later, amid rumors that she had attempted suicide. It wasn’t until this year that she divulged in a People cover story that she struggles with bipolar disorder.

A few years before that, Martin Lawrence had a notorious breakdown on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, cursing and screaming at cars (with a gun in his pocket!) until he was taken away by police and hospitalized. Several years later, in his concert movie Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, he chalked up the experience to smoking bad weed. The whole incident is reminiscent of when Richard Pryor set himself on fire in 1980 and later used the trauma as comic fodder in his concert movie Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, saying he exploded due to a potent mixture of milk and cookies. (He later fessed up in his semi-autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, when the titular character, played by Pryor, pours alcohol all over himself and flicks a lighter.)

In recent years, people of color in the public eye have finally been coming clean about having mental health issues and/or contemplating suicide. Unfortunately, their pleas for sympathy can fall on a few deaf ears. When rising r&b singer Kehlani attempted suicide in 2016, after she was accused online of cheating on ex Kyrie Irving with Canadian musician PartyNextDoor, Chris Brown reminded everyone why he’s an A-1 douchebag when he went on Twitter to call her out. “There is no attempting suicide,” he tweeted. “Stop flexing for the gram.” Stay classy, you asswipe.

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But more recognizable people of color, whether it’s Wentworth Miller or Jada Pinkett Smith, have admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and that is a good thing. It lets African American people know that their feelings of hopelessness aren’t so exclusive.

Ironically, with our history — and what we continue to go through as people — African Americans deserve mental-health treatment and medication the most. Whether it’s black families constantly struggling to live above the poverty line or black men just trying to live every day without getting shot and killed by the police, black people need all the help we can get.

We need to stop acting like feeling depressed or sad or helpless is something you should be embarrassed about or ashamed of — and we definitely need to make sure children know that, so they’ll never have to consider killing themselves. No child should end their life before they’ve even started it.

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Black Milk

Black Milk the producer embraces a warm, vinyl-crackle sound that implies misalignment and chaos but locks in like Voltron when the chorus hits. As it turns out, these are perfect tracks for Black Milk the MC, a head whose elastic flows are more casually sparring (“My shit is Martin Luther/Your shit is Martin Lawrence”) than straight street reportage. But while the Detroit-based impresario has shared or produced beats for a veritable who’s who of underground and mid-field spitters, from Danny Brown to Slum Village to Slaughterhouse, the world at large seems indifferent to his well-honed charms. Their loss.

Wed., Feb. 29, 9 p.m., 2012

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Big Mommas: Martin Lawrence’s Sky-High BMI Equals More Malnourished Jokes

Irony supplies the sole spark of humor in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, as this moribund second sequel has the audacity to feature Martin Lawrence’s fat-suit-encased FBI agent decrying the very same noxious stereotypes in which this film wallows. John Whitesell’s extraordinarily witless movie operates as a checklist for cultural and racial clichés: Young black men prefer hip-hop dreams to college educations; foreigners are evil; fat people are hilarious; skinny white blondes are bitches; and girls (even artistically talented ones) secretly spend their free time staging lingerie dance parties. Amid these cruddy generalities lies a lame premise: Fed Malcolm (Lawrence) and his 17-year-old wannabe-rapper son, Trent (Brandon T. Jackson), go undercover as overweight women at an all-female Atlanta arts school in order to catch a Russian criminal (Tony Curran). Dutiful Bosom Buddies–style scenarios ensue, with Malcolm being romantically pursued by a hefty security guard (Faizon Love) and Trent attempting to woo a beautiful pianist (Jessica Lucas)—though the narrative’s prime objective is milking nonexistent laughs from Lawrence’s latex-swaddled sassy-mammy routine. Fatally anorexic in terms of comedy, action, and romance, Big Mommas depressingly corroborates Trent’s belief that “there’s no rush to greatness.”

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Family Comedy Gone Limp: Tooth Fairy

It’s hard to know what Dwayne Johnson has less faith in: his talent or his audience. Though hardly a comedic dynamo, Johnson has generated laughs with his easygoing charm in forgettable studio products like Get Smart and Planet 51, appealingly undercutting his beefcake physique by letting his characters’ arrogance blow up in their faces. But being likable can only take you so far, as witnessed in Tooth Fairy, director Michael Lembeck’s paint-by-numbers family comedy about a washed-up hockey player (Johnson) who tells his girlfriend’s daughter that the tooth fairy isn’t real and ends up summoned to Fairyland (run by Julie Andrews and Stephen Merchant), where he’s forced to become a tooth fairy to learn the importance of believing in something. With its broader-than-broad comedy and trite inspirational messages, Tooth Fairy requires little of your higher brain functions, thereby allowing you ample time to focus on Johnson’s performance. And while his warmth and lack of self-regard makes him far preferable to his PG-comedy counterparts, Martin Lawrence and Ice Cube, one can’t escape the suspicion that Johnson seems perfectly happy coasting through bland mediocrities. It used to be that his former career as a wrestler was his biggest obstacle to becoming a Hollywood star—now, it appears to be laziness.

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Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins

In this overlong but exuberantly performed comedy from writer-director Malcolm D. Lee, Martin Lawrence is R.J. Stevens, a tabloid TV talk-show host who takes his Survivor-winning fiancée (Joy Bryant, terrific) home to Georgia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery). In Hollywood, R.J.’s a king, but down home, he’s still seen as the hapless kid who lost every childhood game to his cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer), who arrives at the reunion on the arm of R.J.’s unrequited love (Nicole Ari Parker). Although the big comic setups in Lee’s script feel a bit forced—R.J.’s encounter with a skunk, he and Clyde’s climatic obstacle-course showdown—the director continually sets up moments of rapid-fire, barb-filled interplay among his accomplished cast. As R.J.’s crazy cousins (lots of cousins in this house), Mike Epps and the stand-up comic Mo’Nique counterbalance each other nicely—he with a sly, street-hustler charm and she with raise-the-rooftops boisterousness. It’s impressive, actually, that Lawrence lets this film’s supporting players steal so much of his show—as movie stars go, he must be a pretty secure guy.

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‘Big Momma’s House 2’

Freshly feted on Inside the Actors Studio, Martin Lawrence has entrenched himself in the mushy middle of the comedy fundament, joining Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy in pumping out inoffensive family comedies that rake in cash. On the heels of Martin’s Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Lawrence unveils Big Momma’s House 2, which turns out to be as warmhearted as the original. The film zooms past the plot contortions needed to get him back in- to the fat suit, plopping Lawrence’s cross-dressing FBI agent down as a nanny for a white-collar family, whose father is selling intelligence to the axis of evil. With a freedom the NSA would envy, Big Momma breaks into his home and work offices while still having time to teach the kids how to shake dat ass. Lawrence is an ingratiating performer, sarcastic and sentimental, and does inventive work with a swivel chair, a bathing suit, and steaming rocks. He’s helped along by Emily Procter, who plays the overworked wife and should be freed from CSI: Miami as soon as possible.

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Film

Taking a cue from Eddie Murphy’s revival of his box office fortunes, if not his critical rep, Martin Lawrence teams up with Daddy Day Care director Steve Carr for this surprisingly bearable family comedy. Following an on-court incident with an opposing mascot, Coach Roy (Lawrence) gets hit with a lifetime ban by the college basketball brass (apparently graduates of the David Stern School of Sports Management). Seizing an opportunity to rehab his money-grubbing image, Roy returns to his old junior high to helm a team that hasn’t won a game since well before any of its current players were born. Lawrence coasts on star power, genially sending up his bad-boy persona. Early scenes hint at an elemental clash of worldviews, pitting the comedian’s cocksure attitude against the feminized educational sphere, but it’s soon clear that this one’s strictly for the kids—although those closer to the age of the movie’s misfit b-ballers may balk at its sanitized version of middle school hell. Patrick Warburton (
Seinfeld‘s Puddy) amuses in a one-note ‘roid rage turn as a rival coach, just barely clocking more screen time than Tom Arnold—as in last year’s far superior Mr. 3000, Fox wastes no opportunity to promote its TV programming, happily blurring the distinction between verisimilitude and shameless plugging.

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Film

Since the late ’90s, Atlantan comedian-playwright Tyler Perry has toured the Christian theater circuit with bawdy inspirationals, fusing moral dogma, born-again uplift, tent revival music, and sitcom humor. The film adaptation of his 2001 play Diary of a Mad Black Woman follows rich wife Helen (played by Kimberly Elise, fresh from 2004’s soul-saving Woman Thou Art Loosed, Perry’s collab with preacher T.D. Jakes), who returns to the humble ‘hood after being jilted by her lawyer hubby. This rote melodrama weaves Helen’s rebound with sappier bits like the salvation of a drug addict during Sunday’s gospel crescendo. But Diary skirts Waiting to Exhale blandness with the appearance of Madea, a gun-toting, boob-heaving matriarch played by Perry himself. Like a slapstick china shop heifer, housedressed Perry out-Mommas Martin Lawrence with slang bluster: “Peace, be still? That’s why I always carry a big piece of steel!” The tonal collision is compounded when a goofy plot shift avails “mad as hell” Helen a chance to take some brutal revenge on her ex, and the film detours into an almost Miike-like torture sequence. Of course, in the Christian schema, even such cathartic burning-bed violence requires repentance. And by film’s end, contrite Helen is rewarded with the love of a God-fearing working man. Even Madea promises to get to church (or does she mean Comic View?) “as soon as y’all get a smokin’ section.”

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Film

National Security
Directed by Dennis Dugan (Columbia, in release)

A droll twist on the buddy-cop genre, National Security pairs two police rejects who seem more bent on antagonizing one another than on tracking down a group of villains. Hapless Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn) once served on the LAPD, but loses his decorations when he gets caught on videotape in what looks like a brutal assault on Earl Montgomery (Martin Lawrence), who has recently flunked the police academy. Later, as security guards (the butt of numerous jokes), they are reunited in a shoot-out with smugglers of a rare atomic alloy. Hardly a scene goes by in which viewers aren’t reminded of these two bickering crime-fighters’ race, but the film is too parodic to veer into any real hostility, in part because it’s hard to imagine Zahn truly angry at anyone. He sustains his trademark cartoon rictus, suggestive of a young William Macy on E, even in the slo-mo daredevil scenes. Lawrence’s talk-now-think-later shtick is hit or miss, but as the two cop manqués overcome their dearth of common sense to save the day, the film achieves a comic playfulness. —Michael Miller


A Guy Thing
Directed by Chris Koch (MGM, in release)

Julia Stiles can’t dance. While I happen to be rhythm-blind, this has irritated a balletomane friend throughout many of Stiles’s films (notably the hip-hop romance Save the Last Dance). Now, in her role as Becky the half-assed tiki girl, Stiles’s left-footedness can finally be named, only one of the many pleasures tugging this girl-snatches-guy-from-altar comedy a notch above standard. “You really suck at this,” Paul (Jason Lee), a man too timid to wear the little elastic groom hat at his own bachelor party, tells Becky as they meet cute. Luckily, he means shaking her coconuts, not playing the zany-yet-straight-shooting Betty to Selma Blair’s schoolmarmish Veronica. The three move through a faded deck of clichés—Venereal Disease Announced in Pharmacy; Great-Aunt Pudge the Lush; and the set piece, There’s Pot in the Gravy—with a convincing impression of having fun, helped along by a snazzy ’60s-’70s soundtrack and bit-part fillips like the rotund, yet sublimely graceful dance instructor. —Anya Kamenetz

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At Wit’s End

Poor Martin Lawrence. He has neither the charisma of Eddie Murphy nor the gravitas of Richard Pryor, yet he spends most of Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat sloppily retreading the dick’n’booty dialectic of the former and the pharmaceutical misadventures of the latter. Weakened by Margaret Cho’s recent effort, Runteldat might as well finish off the comedy-concert genre. Lawrence’s brand of ax-grinding vitriol is particularly un-filmworthy, especially as it’s layered with halfhearted feel-good diatribes on living life to the fullest, respecting your elders, the strength of women, blah blah blah (this last as a preface to a gag about banging his episiotomized postnatal girlfriend).


Pity, because when he’s not venting at Arabs, denouncing “the media” with the vehemence of a ghetto Pat Robertson, or trotting out topics so stale he might’ve woken from that coma last Thursday, Lawrence’s wry observations on the fragile bloat of male pride can be hilarious. Director David Raynr captures the audience members’ reactions in perfunctory obeisance to the form; like some of them, you may find the laughter sticking in your throat.


At least Runteldat gives you something to choke on. Dana Carvey’s wan comeback vehicle, The Master of Disguise, is so innocent of wit and drive it seems miraculous that he once got as many laughs as fellow SNL shape-shifter Mike Myers. That was then, this is dreck.

Ostensibly conceived for both children and adults, Master manages to bore every possible demographic. The story, such as it is, revolves around the abilities of the sweet-natured scion (Carvey) of a family of you-know-whats; he hones his skills under the tutelage of his grandfather (Harold Gould) in order to rescue his kidnapped dad (James Brolin, looking lost). Carvey’s bazillion zany characters are onscreen so fleetingly they barely register (in some cases mercifully), while his simpering, accented mewling is uniquely irritating. The film’s only real laugh comes when Jesse Ventura, in one of several C-list cameos, says with a straight face, “My skills were meant for the betterment of mankind!” If that were true, he would’ve put a stop to this movie.