The Therapist Akwasi Poku’s short film about barbershops and mental health

WordsJesse Bernard

The barbershop has long acted as sacred ground for Black men, a place where they can be themselves, be open and honest. After an empowering and therapeutic conversation with his barber, filmmaker Akwasi Poku was inspired to create his short film “The Therapist” to explore this barber-customer relationship. He tells Jesse Bernard how it all came together; how he explored the importance of these interactions for the mental health of so many, and how he emphasized the importance of listening.

The Therapist

For Black men, the barbershop represents more than just getting fresh for the weekend—it’s a place of personal transformation. “For me, the barbershop has always been similar to what the telephone booth is for Superman, where he steps in as Clark Kent and steps out as a superhero. I just thought there was something in that particular moment,” says director Akwasi Poku.

The advertising creative-turned-filmmaker’s short film “The Therapist” was inspired by a clandestine trip to his barber during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. “One time, I just messaged my barber Nigel and he told me there at 6.30pm. The shutters and blinds were down, the sign said it was closed. I hadn’t seen him for two months by this point and he’s been my barber since I was 13. Afterwards, I looked at myself and said ‘I’m back!’ I remember going home and just thinking about how that experience felt like therapy, that feeling of renewal,” Poku recalls. 

Drawing on his own life experiences, “The Therapist” explores how the barber and the shop itself can be many things to a community, one of the few places Black men can be themselves, speak openly and meet other men like them. It highlights what something as simple as a haircut can do for a Black man’s self-esteem in an almost spiritual way.

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The film follows a conversation between Jaydon, portrayed by Brett Curtis, and his barber, the lead, played by Ash Barba. The barber cuts Jaydon’s hair and plays the role of a counselor, giving Jaydon the space to speak without offering much insight, as it’s more about him getting something off his chest than seeking advice. The crew shot at Rocket Barbers in Lewisham, a location small and cosy enough to feasibly allow clients such as Jaydon to open up. 

“We shot this film over two very intense days: one for the external scenes and one for the scenes within the barbershop,” says Poku. This plan was made more complex as Brett Curtis needed to have his hair at different lengths throughout the film, meaning the team had to have his actual barber on set. “Something that seems quite simple immediately became quite technical and I feel like we managed it pretty well,” Poku says.

If it wasn’t for Poku’s own life experiences with mental health and his relationship with his barber informing the film’s direction, it likely wouldn’t have been made in the same way. “As narrative filmmakers we always reference the world around us but for me it’s vital to elevate the world to ramp up the drama in a story. So in the early stages of script development, I would share the story and script with a close-knit group of friends and I would ask them where they felt the story could be better and where they thought it was lacking,” he explains. 

Across the ages, there have always been instances where those in authority have cut the hair of those with less power as a form of control. In the biblical story of Samson, the famed Israelite warrior says that he would lose his strength if his head were shaved. One night, his lover Delilah brought a Philistine to him who cut his hair while he slept, diminishing his strength. It’s an enduring story about the innate power that our hair holds.

In “The Therapist,” the haircut reminds Jaydon of just who he is and, though it is cut short, there’s comfort in the act of grooming from someone he’s placed his trust in. “If you think about how sacred a haircut is, growing up in south London there’s not many people you’d allow to touch your face,” Poku says. “Your barber touches your face and puts a blade to it so you’re putting a lot of trust in their hands. I thought we were telling a really spiritual story with this film.”

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For me, the barbershop is what the telephone booth is for Superman, where he steps in as Clark Kent and steps out as a superhero.

The filmmaker acknowledges that there’s something inexplicably healing in speaking to someone who looks like you, who is also far enough removed from your personal life to offer any judgement. He and his brother weren’t speaking for some time and it was the barbershop they both shared that acted as a conduit when they wanted to know how each other were doing. “In a week, a barber will cut maybe a hundred heads in a week and they’re hearing a lot of stories, so what I wanted to allude to was that he almost immediately knows what’s going on,” Poku adds. It’s evident that “The Therapist” is a deeply personal story for Poku; he’s kept the same barber for most of his life, a confidante who has seen him grow from a boy to a man. 

In the same way that not everyone can become a teacher, the same can be said for a barber. The art itself can be learned through training and practice, but all the other skills that aren’t in the job description can only really be mastered by natural empaths who know when to speak and, most importantly, when to listen.