Friday, March 18, 2011

My Childhood Friend, His Mental Illness and Halle Berry's 'Frankie and Alice'

Halle Berry in "Frankie and Alice"
Photo Credit: Sergei Bachlakov
“I want to go home,” Kareem* said wearily over the phone from a mental institution about 15 years ago. That conversation from my high school days in Oakland rushed back to my mind during a scene from Halle Berry’s film “Frankie and Alice.” Berry plays Frankie Murdoch, a black exotic dancer in Los Angeles suffering from dissociative personality disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) the 1970s. Frankie’s mind retreats to other personalities when buried memories from her youth in Georgia resurrect. The film is based on a true story. I’m still surprised Berry wasn’t nominated for an Oscar because she gives one of her best performances in this movie. Berry convincingly switches from Frankie, to a helpless 8 –year- old child, and then to a white, racist, Southern Belle named Alice. Frankie’s therapist Dr. Oz (not to be confused with Oprah’s Oz) tries to figure out the mysterious tragic memories his patient is running from. It’s a good film about coping with mental illness and how secrets come out even when we’re not ready.

The first shot of Frankie’s room triggered memories of my childhood-friend Kareem. Sterile white walls and an uninviting gray twin bed stuffed in the corner of Frankie’s new home made me wonder. Was his room like hers? Did he have a decent view from his window? Kareem was one of my closest friends during middle school. We became friends during our tweens in the early 1990s. Kareem and I talked on the phone about things like wrestling, Tupac, girl-group TLC, roller coasters and our class crushes. He played the dozens with sharpness and schooled me on the art of wit. A lot of black kids our age weren’t into “Seinfeld,” but Kareem loved it. Kramer’s signature stumbling entrance cracked him up. Kareem was persistent in getting me to tune in and I was stubborn. I loved “Martin” and didn’t think “Seinfeld” could compare. “Just watch it!,” Kareem would say. I finally gave in after months of persuasion and was hooked.

Things changed during high school. Kareem changed. He moved about 45 minutes away from Oakland and began getting in trouble at school a lot. That was not like him. He called me a number of times and said he was hearing voices. I thought someone laced his marijuana. I called his mother. I didn’t want to get Kareem in trouble but he needed help. His mother told me she knew about the voices and doctors had diagnosed Kareem with schizophrenia. My stomach dropped. Schizophrenia? I didn’t know much about schizophrenia then. All I knew was that schizophrenia was a mental illness and this situation was serious.

The first time I ever heard cool-kid Kareem sound vulnerable was when he said, “I want to go home.” Kareem told me he didn’t belong in a mental institution. I replied that he was sick and there to get better. During our other conversations he wanted to know about my life in high school. I told him things and we still laughed like in our prior conversations. He tried to keep his spirits up. Still a part of me felt guilty. Kareem was supposed to be hanging out at football games and getting girls’ phone numbers at the mall. That was how we envisioned high school, not this. I couldn't do anything to help him.  You think you’re grown and know everything when you’re a teenager. I realized how young we really were as I saw Kareem’s life change so drastically.

Eventually I lost contact with Kareem and his family. He moved around to different facilities and his mother didn’t return my calls. I understand. She had other children, a husband, and a job to juggle in addition to Kareem. I commend her for being strong and taking care of her son. Even before “Frankie and Alice” I never stopped thinking about Kareem. Every time I catch a “Seinfeld” rerun, and watch Kramer fling open a door, I remember Kareem’s laughter. The upside to all of this oddly is Kareem was one of the lucky ones. He, like Halle Berry’s character, had access to mental-health services. Many people today aren't so fortunate. But that’s another post.

*Name changed

5 comments:

  1. Great post. I'm sure Halle acted her ass off, but methinks "Frankie & Alice" will go overlooked by most audiences just because she's not white. "Sybil" is the gold standard for multiple personality biopics, but society can use a "reboot." Dissociative Identity Disorder is a very real thing, and it does not discriminate, so I am pleased to know that a film about it features an African-American woman as the lead.

    How many of us know someone who has an undiagnosed mental illness? More than we realize.

    Again, good post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand your point but I don't think audiences skipped this movie b/c Halle isn't white. Halle's one of the few "mainstream" black actresses that has mass appeal. The problem is the movie wasn't in many theaters. I can't even recall seeing a commerical for the film. I think if it hit theaters nation wide and had more publicity people would've seen it. When I saw Precious, the theater was packed and I was one of a few black people in there. Black films have a hard time getting distribution. She won an NAACP Image Award for her role and got a Golden Globe nomination.

    I agree that a lot of people with mental illness haven't been diagnosed but that's part of our healthcare problem in this country and people not educated on mental health issues. Luckily my friend's mother knew about schizophrenia and got her son help. Like I said, a lot of people aren't so blessed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh and I'm glad you liked the post. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. it's on Netflix now if anyone wants to watch it

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep! It's on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

      Delete

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Fly Visitors

blogger statistics
blogger statistics