Black adults are 20 percent more likely than white adults to report serious psychological distress, and yet many are apprehensive about seeking professional help for mental health issues.
But there’s a new artistic effort to change this reality.
D.C. independent filmmaker Penny Hollis is working on two films which center the experiences of Black individuals dealing with untreated mental illness. In The Birthday Gift, a homeless man burdened by the weight of his past and an un-compassionate society wrestles with depression while searching for the perfect gift for his wife. In Maxine, a middle-aged teacher coping with the aftermath of a brutal attack is thrust into a state of paranoia that puts her students and job in jeopardy.
As a person who has struggled with depression and who has a number of family members with mental illnesses, Penny creates films that approach the subject with uncanny compassion and honesty. She’s a friend and neighbor who I’ve seen over the years, and when she heard I was a writer, her face lit up: “I have to show you my short film about abortion,” she exclaimed, referring to a past project.
Right now, Penny is fundraising to finish The Birthday Gift and Maxine, so please join me in helping her reach the goal by *this Sunday.* It’s important for me to support Black artists, and Penny also has a majority-Black production team. She’s ready to get these films out there!
In the meantime, read my Q&A with Penny below, in which I speak to her about these deeply personal films:
Tell me a bit about your background in film and how the passion developed.
My love for filmmaking started as a child — I always had a very vivid imagination. I loved storytelling, I had imaginary friends, and I’d put all my baby dolls in a storyline.
I decided to go to graduate school for film at Howard University back in 2005. I figured if I’m so passionate about it, I should make it my living instead of just a hobby.
Tell me about the writing process for the two films you’re currently crowdfunding for.
I’ve been working on these for about three years now. They are both about mental illness. Mental illness runs in my family, so both stories are based on family members.
Because I’m so close to these stories, I’m used to keeping stuff in my head. It took a long time to take stories from real life experiences and people and turn them into fictional pieces. I had to ask one of my producers to come over and force me to just sit and write to get them on paper.
The first film, The Birthday Gift, is based on my parents. My mother died five years ago, and my father died this year. The film is about a man who’s depressed because he’s away from his wife.
The second piece, Maxine, is based on my aunt who is in a mental institution and who has been in and out for years. The film is based on a sexual assault that happened to her in 1980 and how she’s dealing with it in present day.
While Black folks are more likely to suffer from mental illness, they are also less likely to seek help. Why do you think that is?
Being brought up in a Black family and Black community, mental health was something that wasn’t really talked about. The funny thing is that we have a lot of medical professionals in my family: three doctors and two nurses. So we have professionals right there, but still no one in my family chose to seek help. I’m pretty sure I have other family members who are still not diagnosed.
It’s hard for the African American community to seek help because there’s always a stigma. If you seek help, you’re labeled as “crazy”: you can’t get a job, can’t have a family. On top of that, people are afraid that if they seek help, they might be institutionalized because of the color of their skin. There’s definitely a fear of being institutionalized against one’s will. Some of the elders in my family are having symptoms, but that generation is even less likely to seek help, especially ones who live in the South.
While mental illness affects everyone, it affects everyone differently. Your social background, the community you were raised in, those are factors. Of course mental illness is not just an African American story, but those are the stories that I know because those are the communities I grew up in.
Why did you decide to go the crowdfunding route?
Lately you’ve been seeing more African American pictures on the big screen: Moonlight just won Best Picture, for example. But the film industry is still dominated by white men. As a woman — and a woman of color — I don’t see a lot of women who look like me behind the camera, in control of a story.
Because of the subject and topic of the film, I don’t have a big studio backing me. But I actually don’t want to put this story into their hands — I want to keep it in my hands.
When people support the project, they are also supporting an independent filmmaker. We need more real, raw, unfiltered stories that are not controlled by film studios. I need help to get it done.
What do you hope audiences walk away with after viewing your projects?
I know I’m just one little filmmaker, but my goal is to help you start a conversation, with your family or even just with yourself. See a therapist or a psychiatrist. Open up, be an open book, and allow this person to help you.
Don’t give up. If you feel like you’re giving up, try a hotline to get help. It’s nothing that you should be ashamed of. I am not ashamed that I am in therapy — I think it’s a good thing.
It’s okay to be different, it’s okay to ask for help.