When Akwasi Poku sat down in his barber’s chair following the first Covid lockdown, he realised how much he had missed him. Not only because his hair was “mashed up” and in need of some TLC, but also because over the years he and Nigel had forged a deep connection; after months of isolation, Akwasi finally felt like he had a moment to open up and talk about life on a deeper level.
This encounter led Akwasi, a writer and filmmaker with previous experience at Wieden&Kennedy and TBWA Media Arts Lab, to explore the impact and cultural legacy of barbershops. Through his research he uncovered how universal his experience was – generations of men before him had found barbershops to be spaces of solace and understanding. At the same time, Akwasi had become disillusioned by the “played-out” narratives of Black men’s stories on screen, and so he spent a year crafting a script set around the barber’s chair that was “compelling, light-hearted and truly authentic”.
The Therapist follows its lead Jaydon (Brett Curtis) – as he goes for a trim. Tense and closed off, his barber, The Therapist (Top Boy’s Ash Barba), soon realises that something’s not right. The short takes us on a journey from the warm-interior of the barbershop to surrealist flashbacks in time, piecing together the story behind Jaydon’s low mood, and the way The Therapist expertly eases him into opening up. It’s a tender, funny and heartfelt film that’s sure to leave both a lasting impression and a smile on your face.
It was important to Akwasi for the film to feel timeless and cinematic; “I wanted to create a film that was so stylised you could pull a frame from it and print it out,” he says. Looking to films like David Fincher’s Seven, James Mangold’s Ford Vs Ferrari, and Melina Matsoukas’ Queen and Slim, he managed to craft a classic sleekness to the visuals that enhanced, rather than detracted from the everyday subject matter the film deals with. Akwasi also wanted to ensure that there was a clear visual difference between the barbershop scenes and flashbacks. Originally, Akwasi had grand plans of creating a rotating set for the latter, but due to time constraints this idea had to be abandoned, and instead the team delved into VFX, using its vast capabilities to create a south London ‘mirror universe’. “I think it’s a beautiful magical surrealist metaphor of what it feels like to step into a memory,” Akwasi says.
Alongside the project, The Therapist ’s creative team have created a series of posters featuring portraits and short animated videos of Black men of all ages post-trim. The images cleverly recreate the Black hair charts that show off different styles, as commonly found in barbershops. With simplistic backdrops and an array of styles, the portraits demonstrate the euphoria a haircut can stir. Not only will they be featured in an immersive exhibition at the film’s screening, the team have plans to send them to as many barbershops as possible, making them free to download and display.
Reflecting on the project as a whole, Akwasi is proud of how many creative battles were overcome – “when you’re self-funding a project you have to beg, steal and borrow which is hard” – and how it was one built on collaboration, from the deft hands of cinematographers Miguel Carmenes and Henry Gill, to the actors who gave so much. “They were super believable and I think they unlocked a level of Black Britishness that has rarely been portrayed on screen,” says Akwasi.
Akwasi hopes The Therapist will open up conversation and also highlight just how important spaces like barbershops are. “I want people to know that even when life gets really tough, no matter how big or small you might think your problems are, there is always somebody out there who will listen to you to help you make sense of how you’re seeing the world,” he ends. “In the Black community, mental health for a long time has been a bit of a taboo subject so I hope that this will shine a bit of light on people when they’re going through a dark situation and destigmatise talking to our community bastions and therapists.”
GalleryAkwasi Poku: The Therapist (Copyright © Akwasi Poku, 2024)
Akwasi Poku: The Therapist (Copyright © Akwasi Poku, 2024)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.