The Knockturnal recently spoke to Actor, writer, and director Denzel Whitaker. We were able to discuss; his upcoming project, cancel culture, and mental health.
His upcoming project titled 5150, starring Jovan Adepo (When They See Us, Watchmen) and Executive Produced by David Oyelowo (Selma). The story of 5150 is about a world-famous black celebrity who is detained at a mysterious psychiatric institute for his erratic behavior and political activism. With this project, we intend on tackling mental health (especially within the black community), the power of modern celebrities, and the adverse effects of anyone amassing that much fame.
His own filmography includes films such as Black Panther, The Great Debaters, and other incredible works!
Check out our interview below!
The Knockturnal: How are you coping during COVID-19?
Denzel Whitaker: Obviously the world is quite strange right now and we pray and hope for the best. There is a lot going on – a lot that could be stressing us out. Thankfully though, my headspace has been good and my family has been good. We’ve all been safe and healthy and – you know, I kind of have just been keeping myself busy creatively. You know that’s kind of where my mindset has been – pushing myself forward rather than dwell.
The Knockturnal: How have you been keeping yourself busy?
Denzel Whitaker: Right as the pandemic started and the stay in orders were being enforced I was finishing up my independent project. I was shooting some exotic cars and filming some Youtube Content. There’s a project I’ve been working on called 5150. That’s been a personal baby of mine. It’s a short film we’re going to be turning into a limited series. By way of everyone being home, I just started making calls. Me and my producer were reaching out to people we wanted to target and get on board. I reached out to my friend Jovan Adepo. I’ve been a fan of his work for so long and just an admirer. We always kind of kept in touch via social media and I was like “Dude, what are you doing right now? Can you read the script? Let’s start talking.” And, by way of us getting on the phone, one thing led to the next. David Oyelowo and his company were already starting to attach with us. We got Jovan on board. We raised half the budget in the midst of a pandemic. It was just one unforeseen blessing after another and that pretty much sent me on a roller coaster from the beginning of the pandemic.
The Knockturnal: How did the project come to be?
Denzel Whitaker: I guess this really came about in 2017. The last time I directed a real narrative short was back in 2013 and then I got onto a string of music videos. Most notably I’ve done this short musical album Ryan Brown called Pretty Girl. So 2017 comes around and I was like “Man I need to step behind the narrative lens again”. I wanted to find a project that wasn’t action based or music-based but something that I could showcase that muscle in and transform myself as a young director. So I was thinking of all of the different topics that I wanted to spotlight and one of my favorite artists at the time, Kanye West, was just recently 5150. It really got me spinning my wheels about how misunderstood Kanye could often be but a lot of the time we as artists could be misunderstood. When that happened to him, I wanted to pull back the curtain and look into it and see what is our relationship with society and celebrities. You know; Are people even meant to be famous? Are they meant to be put on a platform and be praised? Are we meant to be more famous than the man right next to us? I mean, what does that do to you mentally, on top of systematic oppression, and mental health issues and triggers we may be dealing with that have nothing to do with being famous and are just universal problems. That was really the seed that sparked all of this.
The Knockturnal: Do you feel like you have been able to navigate the answer to the question, “are people meant to be famous?” or “what it means to be famous”?
Denzel Whitaker: It’s one of those things where I think we are still figuring out the answer as we go. I know for me, as with all of my body of work whether it be in front of or behind the camera – its been cathartic for me at least. One of the things I’ve learned over the course of three years while writing this and looking at celebrities as a whole, just to go on a tangent, I don’t see myself necessarily as a celebrity. I have definitely been in the public eye and people happen to know me when I go on my day to day but at a certain point in time, you just want to do what you need to do and put forth the art that you really love. I’ve always admired people who carry celebrity with grace and people like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson have really stuck out to me. Even Kevin Hart and Colin Kaepernick, these are celebrities that when they get in front of people they inspire and motivate. They use their platform to really change people’s life. So it breaks my heart when you see someone like Kevin Hart being crucified for hosting the Oscars and fulfilling one of his dreams because of a series of tweets – not saying that the tweets were appropriate, I’m not condoning the tweets. But it is unfortunate that quickly society can turn on him. Something from his past was inexcusable but that doesn’t mean he is the same person today. The Kevin Hart who wrote those tweets is not the same Kevin Hart today. So that public shaming that happened in-between time, nobody really considers what that does to the artist.
The Knockturnal: That brings up the modern-day cancel culture we live in and what that does to someone mentally. Do you have your own take on cancel culture?
Denzel Whitaker: People are vicious! It’s so easy to be that behind the keyboard. You really wonder what people would say and do if we sit them in a room. And sure some people might be like, “Well I’ll still tell them to their face”. Well that’s wonderful, but I doubt you would go so hard if you had to look face to face with somebody, you might even change your word choice or approach. Cancel culture is too easy. It’s too microwavable. It’s too accessible. I guess I encourage people to collectively think before they act. That would be my one thing to say about cancel culture. I think there just needs to be more thought put in before we so quickly give out our commentary. Everybody is so quick to give their commentary without really seeing all sides of the picture.
The Knockturnal: Your project is mainly tackling mental health, especially within the black community can you speak a little bit more about that?
Denzel Whitaker: So our lead protagonist within the film is Black. One of the things to me that was an incredible discovery within my artistry was going to therapy. As an actor, I’m always emotionally expressing myself. When I was young and doing it, I wasn’t really sure what I was holding on to or releasing. So oftentimes with an emotional scene, especially when I was younger, I used to perform and then break. It would be a while to get on the other side of the hurdle. I knew what my triggers were but I didn’t know why they were triggers. So when I got older, I went to therapy session here and there thinking “Oh there is nothing wrong with me, let me just see what we talk about”. I then started to learn stuff about myself. But as I told my family members about my said experiences they were like, “There is nothing wrong with you. You just need to toughen up.” I find that so often, especially within the black community, we have had to suppress emotion and take orders. Even if someone were to say they were mentally ill, there’s a fine line between stressed out and going crazy. We don’t know the difference because half of the time we haven’t had the tools or the resources to be able to afford it. So for me, that was alarming as I grew older and I realized that amongst my peers and my community.
The Knockturnal: Have you found that people are more open to talking about mental health within the entertainment industry? Is it less of a taboo?
Denzel Whitaker: I think so. I think finally we are getting to a point where people are starting to open up and be a little bit more vulnerable. That’s the beautiful thing with artists and with our careers. People want to know our emotions. Don’t get me wrong, people want to pry in and know what you ate two minutes ago but they also want to know how you’re feeling. I think finally we can open up and talk about it. Finally, men are letting go of that toxic masculinity. They’re learning that it is okay to cry and that there is strength in being vulnerable. I’m glad that at least in the entertainment industry we are starting to open up.
The Knockturnal: How has this experience been different for you artistically being behind the camera as opposed in front?
Denzel Whitaker: I first jumped behind the camera in 2011. Denzel Washington was really a champion for me getting behind the camera. He saw something within me that I didn’t myself at the time when I was 17 and we worked together on The Great Debaters. He got me my first camera and he would bring me into the editing room. He said, “I’m going to teach you what I know”. Every day I would bring in my composition book and take notes. It meant the world to me. I humbled myself to the project. I wanted to know it all. I did not go to film school for it but I became a student again. I think the experience has made me a better performer in front of the camera and having a greater appreciation for what every single person does on set. I understand the importance of my role but also, I hate to say it, the unimportance of where I fit within the piece. Sure, we are the face of the project but there are so many other talented people behind the curtain that we don’t often see and don’t often get appreciated. I got mad love for anybody on any set and that has helped me as a performer to better translate what I do.
As a director, it’s given me a voice to tell stories. I’m passionate about storytelling. I’m passionate about connecting with people. I’m emotional. I like hearing from other people. It’s just been another outlet for me to express myself, especially knowing how shy I was as a child and how I’ve broken that barrier through my art. It’s helping me to fully realize who I am as a person just by way of making films.
The Knockturnal: You are setting up your production to start filming as soon as this is over. What has the process been like?
Denzel Whitaker: My team and I are forming a plan. We are creating a document that outlines what we are going to take as procedures. We are going to propose a plan to SAG. We want our actors and crew to feel comfortable. Safety is of the utmost priority for us. I have definitely been on sets before where safety was not exercised and I’ve seen how that can be damaging. You do the best to put this in place. What you want to do is mitigate any potential accidents and any sort of outbreak. We don’t want to bring any harm to anyone coming on board. We are creating a plan and looking at the landscape. We’re looking at what’s happening in LA and in New York – even oversees. With that, we are taking what best applies and putting that towards our crew. Thankfully the size of the production is going to be a lot smaller. We feel pretty confident we will keep everyone safe. We do worry. It’s about holding everyone on set accountable. Hopefully, with this document that we have in place – hopefully, we can even share it with other people in the industry. We can create something safe yet still entertaining and not compromise ourselves. We will adjust if we have to. Everybody who has come onboard has been nothing but supportive and they feel like they are in trusted hands. We are looking forward to it.