On August 9, sports legend Frank Gifford passed away. It was later determined the Pro Football Hall Of Famer was yet another former NFL player to have suffered from the degenerating brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Gifford joined Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Terry Long, John Mackey, Jovan Belcher, Lou Creekmur, Chris Henry, and dozens of others on the list of ex-football players that battled life altering symptoms such as depression, memory loss, impulse control issues, and suicidal thoughts caused by CTE.
The first NFL star to be posthumously diagnosed with CTE was Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster. The post-mortem condition was initially discovered by neuropathologist Bennet Omalu. The story of the Nigerian born immigrant’s breakthrough medical work and conflict with the NFL is now being told through the new film Concussion.
Golden Globe nominated actor Will Smith stars as Dr. Omalu with Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing his Kenyan wife Prema Mutiso. The Peter Landesman directed movie also features Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Paul Riser, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Hill Harper.
Concussion plays out as part medical drama, part murder mystery, and part love story. Mbatha-Raw’s Prema is an essential supporting force for Smith’s Bennet as the determined doctor battles against a multi-billion dollar corporation that one character rightly declares “owns a day of the week.”
AllHipHop.com spoke with Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond The Lights) about her role in the powerful new film and the impact Concussion may have on the American public’s view of its present favorite pastime. The Oxford, England native also shares an amusing behind-the-scenes moment with Smith as well as her love for the award-winning Broadway Hip Hop musical Hamilton.
Can you talk about your character’s significance to the film?
I play Prema Mutiso who then becomes Prema Omalu. Prema is the wife of Bennet Omalu. From my perspective, Prema is the emotional driving force of the film and the moral compass for Bennet’s character. When they met, they’re both foreigners to America. They meet in church, drawn together by their faith.
They bond over their similar own ways of assimilating into America. Bennet is very much more ahead of Prema. He’s enamored with becoming accepted as an American, and I think Prema is a bit more grounded in her own culture.
It's sort of an unconventional love story in many ways. They kind of come together almost as an arrangement, and then they fall in love. As Bennet makes these discoveries about CTE and bringing them to the NFL, Prema suffers these emotional, personal costs of taking on the truth.
You spoke about both characters having to learn to assimilate to American culture. As a British national could you relate?
Absolutely, growing up in the U.K., we didn’t have American football in our culture in the same way it is here. So I certainly related to Prema’s journey on that level, because I was really starting from square one with football just like my character in the film. [laughs]
There’s something about the movie where it explores the idea of the American dream. Bennet says in the film he believes America is where God sent all of his favorite children. As funny as that sounds, I think there’s a definite quality to Bennet and Prema. They are both in the country for opportunity, to make the best of themselves, and for a new life.
Obviously, I’ve had some fabulous opportunities in America with work. My cultural leap from the U.K. to America is not as vast as coming from Kenya to America, but I think that immigrant story and what perspective you have to contribute to a new culture is interesting. As well as also trying to stay true to yourself, I relate to that for sure.
The concept of the film is very timely. Especially coming off the recent news Frank Gifford suffered from CTE. How do you think this movie will impact the conversation about head injuries in football?
I hope it will spread awareness. I think it’s about information. That’s the wonderful thing about a movie. Not many people will read a science textbook about CTE. It’s not a documentary. It’s definitely entertaining and a very powerful film.
It’s a chance for people to understand, on a graphic level, the truth of the situation. When people understand the potential risk of football, then they can make an educated choice if they want to pursue the sport or their family members to pursue the sport.
As far as the impact, it’s just the tip of the conversation. In terms of us understanding the brain in general, there’s a lot we don’t know about how the brain works from concussions, mental health, and all sorts of issues that could be related to brain trauma.
Football is still the most popular sport in America. What would you say to someone that hasn’t seen the film, but just off the talk around it may think Concussion is “anti-football” or “anti-NFL”?
It’s definitely not an anti-football film. I would say the film is for the evolution of football and the players. Who wants to live in ignorance? We all appreciate and celebrate the game of football in the film. There’s some wonderful football footage in the film that’s described as “beautiful” and “Shakespearean.” There’s no denying this is a movie that is also in love with football.
But because of it being in love with football, there’s also a need to be transparent. [We need] to say, “If football is still going to be around in 20 years, we need to be aware and maybe adjust how it’s played.” It’s not about operating from a place of fear. It’s about operating from a place of knowledge and understanding.
This is for AllHipHop, so I did want to ask you about music. Were there any particular artists you found yourself listening to a lot this year?
I actually saw a Hip Hop musical last night - Hamilton. That was really fascinating to me, because I was a musical theater obsessive as a kid.
I explored Hip Hop for my research for Beyond The Lights. I was never a major Hip Hop fan, but I certainly learned to appreciate it when I was playing Noni. So to then see a musical on stage that mixed my childhood musical self with the elements I learned doing Beyond The Lights - it was a wonderful fusion. [laughs]
I bought the [Hamilton] soundtrack. I’m looking forward to listening to that again. The way the lyrics are spoken and the fact that it’s historical and also modern at the same time is a really interesting combination.
I recommend it, if you can get a ticket. [laughs] If you’re a Hip Hop aficionado, you really have to see Hamilton, because it takes Hip Hop and puts a historical spin on it. It’s really very unique.
You played a singer in Beyond The Lights. Do you have any interest in doing like Jennifer Lopez or Jamie Foxx and become a double threat actor-singer?
[laughs] The music in Beyond The Lights was written for that character. The-Dream wrote some amazing songs for Noni. It wasn’t really me as Gugu becoming a Hip Hop artist. Although the way that we researched it, it did almost feel like me and the character were molding at one point.
But you never say never. Right now I don’t really write music, but I learned a lot from working with artists in the industry. I enjoyed the process of playing Noni but not having to be her all the time. I think it would be hard work to be an artist full time. I like acting where I could be one character and then move on to the next.
Going back to Concussion, Will Smith started off as a rapper/musician, and then he transitioned into acting.
We have a dance scene in the club, and Will’s character can’t dance. I knew that was really hard for Will to pretend that he couldn’t dance. [laughs]
We were shooting this club scene for hours with the same song on a loop. All of the extras had to dance all day, and everyone was really lagging. At one point Will jumps up on the desk and starts singing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. The whole club started singing along.
It was really fun. Watching him having to pretend he couldn’t dance all day, and then to have that moment, was a great morale booster. It was a very generous way to perk everyone’s energy up for the rest of the shoot.
I hope that’s on the DVD extras. [laughs]
[laughs] I don’t know if the behind-the-scenes people caught it or not.
Finally, what are you looking forward to next year?
I have the movie The Free State Of Jones coming out in May which I am really excited about. It’s a true story, historical epic set in the Civil War with Matthew McConaughey. I had a great time shooting that in New Orleans.
I just got back from South Africa after shooting an episode of Black Mirror for Netflix. It’s a really unique story written by Charlie Brooker. He’s a complete genius. If you haven’t seen the show, check it out. Black Mirror is really cool.
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Concussion hits theaters nationwide on December 25.
Watch the trailer for Concussion below.
All photographs courtesy of Columbia Pictures.