“I’m sorry I’m always on the road in cars now”. Darrell and I launch into conversation after (him) pulling over mid journey at the side of the street. I welcome the change in location, albeit over zoom. Darrell, with the release of his two latest films ‘Judas and The Black Messiah’ and ‘Silk Road’ is feeling the boom always on the road, although as a welcome break from being cooped up from the Lockdowns due to COVID-19. I reminisce the days of meeting in other locations than just my front room. The days of back to back meetings between stiffling hot tube journeys and coffee drops, but with all that being said, I think it’s human contact and warmth we are pining, for as Darrell says he’s most looking forward to “hearing the laughs of the people I love in person. I’ve heard them a million times over FaceTime and zooms, but hearing them in person, it sounds different. It feels different. And I look so forward to hearing those laughs again”.
In a world currently full of so many pressures, it comes as no surprise the pressures he felt with his leading role as Bobby Rush in ‘Judas and The Black Messiah’.
“I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. But I also felt a tremendous amount of privilege being chosen to portray him. I think that this is an industry in which we tend to see some actors who feel like this is some sort of right to play or have incredible opportunities, but to me, I just, it’s a tremendous amount of privileged to be chosen to be the vessel to portray him, and it’s for sure, pressure and an obligation to get it right, take it seriously but with that said you have to give it to God and hope that it all works out.”
To be portraying someone who is not only a visionary and activist, but also a American Politician who we can assume will be watching Darrell’s portrayal, I can imagine carries it’s own weight, but amongst other things must have been an experience we could only imagine.
“It feels very surreal. You put on your wardrobe, and you step onto these sets that are beautifully designed that feel like you’re stepping into 1968/1969 Chicago. You really are transported. You’re looking around and the beautiful costume design is everywhere around you, not just on your body, but on everybody else’s body. So you really are taken to this to this place and you feel everything. It’s so beautifully directed by Shaka King you feel like you’re there. Even though we’ll never, as actors be able to understand what these women and men truly went through on a day to day basis it truly is surreal at times just being on the set feeling this, knowing what your ancestors we’re going through on a day to day basis. It was an incredible to experience it.”
As someone in a position of privilege, I can’t help to think of our abhorrent education system where Black history isn’t truly taught, where it’s simply glossed over, as I ask Darrell about the state of the American education system.
“Our education system, when it comes to a black history is just as bad. It’s terrible. If it wasn’t for my beautiful parents, and their education of me and my siblings, I wouldn’t know about the Black Panthers. If it wasn’t for my community, I wouldn’t know about the Black Panther Party, just because it’s been scrubbed from our history books. It’s terrible, the way that black history is taught in schools, but if I’m honest it’s not even taught. We spend a few days on it, and then it’s like ‘let’s move on’ and I think no, black history is American history. It is our history. It’s the world’s history. I really hope and pray that this film makes people want to do their own research, that sort of sparks that in people as individuals to want to go and read about the party and what the party did, and all the incredible things the party implemented. Because it’s so important, and it’s so vital to know what we are doing today what the Black Panther Party did. They are the reason that I’m sitting here able to have this conversation with you today. It’s so important. I really do hope that this is going to make people want to go seek their own education on it, because if you leave it up to the educational system, you wouldn’t know anything.”
As I look at Darrell, even over Zoom, I see the spark and hope in his eyes that the film will leave a lasting impression on the audience like film has the power to do.
“It’s a way to cast a wide net, because everybody can sit down and watch it at the same time. Right? We can’t all sit down and read the same book at the same exact time as easily as the film. The film can sit mass audiences down at the same exact time which can create that conversation that can lead to people wanting to sit down and read that same book at the same time.”
At this time, where the world feels in constant disarray, many are experiencing mental health for the first time. But we can’t ignore how privilege also plays a part when it comes to mental health, and how communities are still being subjected to disadvantages with education, support and treatment, with Race playing directly into access within our mental health systems.
“When it comes to mental health so much it is about access, right? And if you don’t grant somebody the access to something, how can you tell them? When it comes to mental health in the black community, it’s not something that we speak about enough. There are generational scars that we have, that we’re still learning and still healing from, and will be forever healing from. It’s something that I definitely have. I have friends who have taken their own life and you would never thought that anything was wrong. It’s such a tough thing to even speak about, because you start to feel responsible, like man, maybe I didn’t check up on them enough. There’s so many layers to it. Mental health needs to be a broader conversation. I’ve actually written a short (film) that we shot that we’re going to be releasing soon that that touches on mental health in the black community. I’m hoping that it’s the spark for more conversation. I think it’s such an important thing that we don’t speak about enough.”
When it comes to trauma, for many we don’t necessarily have to be face it day in, day out in our daily lives. For many, the subject of trauma can be static and traced back to specifics. However, for the Black community trauma and triggers and everywhere which I can only imagine the daily emotional pain.
“We’re faced with it every day. Speaking in the case of George Floyd, we are literally watching a black man, be lynched. We’re watching that, and we are watching it repeatedly day in day out to then be asked ‘Hey, did you see this video’. Every day, there was another case of something where you’re seeing a black woman or a man be beaten in the street. It’s insanity. It’s extremely traumatising and triggering, but we are forced to deal with it in a way like ‘Well, okay, cool’.
I ask Darrell whether the film felt therapeutic in ways.
“For me, personally, it was therapeutic, being around the beautiful cast and crew, these beautiful black women, and these beautiful black men who are incredible human beings. It was therapeutic to be around so much power, especially in an industry in which it’s designed to make us fight and hate each other, when in reality, we are so much more powerful together. It was such a beautiful experience and therapeutic in that regard but also traumatic, because we’re sitting in this apartment that’s been recreated, to be the apartment of Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, which they were assassinated in. We were sitting there on the 50th anniversary of the assassination, shooting the scene. Every day, I go to set, I hear music in my head to pump me up. That day, I didn’t hear a single thing in my head. It was like hearing a pin drop. It was triggering, you know, to have to be there and to try. It was tough. But again the therapy came in the form of the incredible people I was working with, with our leader Shaka King, Daniel Kaluuya and being able to be in the space with them was like, wow, like, I’m not doing this alone.
Darrell’s on screen community stretches to his most recent film Silk Road.
“It’s a fascinating story. Ross Ulbricht’s story is fascinating. I had heard about Silk Road before the film and when they approached me I remember just thinking about how fascinating his story was, and wanting to sort of know more about it. It’s truly a remarkable story, I mean it’s a wild story about success, drugs and it’s affect on society. Having heard about the story before I was even approached about the film made me you know, made it an easy decision for me to take part in it.
Darrell’s passion for community and having those to rely and fall back on as a method of coping with mental health and triggers, is channelled throughout the interview as a shinning beacon of hope. It’s clear as day community is everything. I ask Darrell his personal suggestions when it comes to how he manages his own mental health.
“Meditation. I would encourage everybody to at least explore the idea of meditation. Because it’s truly being an incredible addition to my life, and my daily practice of it. My mother is very, very, spiritual. She meditates daily. She’s probably meditating as we’re having this conversation. She knows she has instilled that in all her boys. It’s helped me get through so much of this. I just really wish people would understand how beautiful and powerful and incredible that they are. I think in going beyond just saying love yourself, but understand how powerful you are, how much you mean to others, and understanding your worth. The understanding that the world is a better place because of you.”
In an unpredictable world where so much pain is being felt, so much distance is seen, it’s clear from speaking to Darrell the importance of community in both his roles, and the present world. If you take anything from today in the words of Darrell Britt-Gibson use ‘those bad things to your advantage’ as the world truly is a better place with you in it.
Judas and The Black Messiah and Silk Road are out now.
Words: Alice Gee