Over the past few weeks a short film entitled The Strange Thing About the Johnsonshas been quietly making the independent film circuit while a leaked (wink-wink) copy has been creating quite a stir on the internet. This stir and much needed discourse has African Americans, in particular, choosing sides between a white filmmaker’s freedom of expression and a community’s rejection of ownership. But what if there are no sides to be chosen under the revealing light of the truth.
I first came to know of this short film’s existence after seeing a countless number of Facebook posts asking, “Have you heard about The Johnsons?” Initially I thought to myself, “Who the hell are The Johnsons and why should I care?” Then one early evening as I sat in my East Harlem apartment, staring at the magnificent Neo-Italian Romanesque church directly across the street, out of sheer curiosity and boredom I decided to click the Vimeo link that read, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons – Don’t Ask, Just Watch!” I still don’t know if this fateful click by idol hands was the work of Lucifer himself or divine intervention because what transpired next would be absolutely life changing.
In exactly 29 minutes and 06 seconds independent filmmaker, Ari Aster and a cast of relatively unknown actors managed to leave all that took the challenge riveted, enlightened, disturbed and by most accounts, downright disgusted. But disgusted in a good way, if you know what I mean. The first time I watched The Johnsons, I could not believe what I was witnessing. This very young director, straight out of film school, somehow magically possesses the unique and uncanny ability to transform viewers into voyeurs, voyeurs into messengers, and messengers into loyal disciples. Mr. Aster meticulously unravels this twisted story of family hierarchy, social perception and dirty little secrets into a cinematic masterpiece. To some it’s a classic Monet – beautiful from a far, but as you get closer and closer the ugly truth is slowly revealed. There is even something actually quite romantic about the dark cinematography deployed by the filmmaker and his crew. The film artfully blends the feeling and pace of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the tabooed romanticism of the Italian gem, I Am Love, and the melodrama of the film lover’s classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. There is also a strange sense of victory in Mr. Aster’s artistic recklessness as he takes on the very grotesque and uncomfortable subject of incest. His unabashed approach to incest is a scenario most of us would never dare to imagine. Mr. Aster further challenges his audience by proposing the most taboo and dirty question of all: “What if?”
After watching the film for the second time, I made the mistake of searching the internet for reviews and commentary as something told me the comments that remained on the actual video site had been “curated” by the channel’s moderator. But I had no idea what kind of 21st Century Pandora’s box I had opened by simply typing, The Strange Thing – but that’s a story for another blog. Most critiques of the film itself however were broken down into one or two word commentaries: sick, disgusting, deeply traumatized, WOW, powerful, and my personal favorite – brilliantly disturbing. After reading the broad spectrum of comments, I quickly realized that Mr. Aster had struck movie making gold by becoming equal parts relevant, provocative and most importantly, polarizing. However, it wasn’t until I started clicking onto the various indie-movie websites that I realized there was also a great deal of tension brewing over the fact the director of the film was white and the story was based on an African American family. For some reason, I had completely ignored the race of the family as being a huge point of contention as the reversal in traditional villain and protagonist (spoiler alert: son on father action) seemed to trump all discussions of race, religion or politics. But of course, this is America the Beautiful and where would we be if we didn’t whittle everything down to race? The more I read these hate filled comments and rants the more I began feeling angry, frustrated and eventually quite sad.
Later that night as I lay in bed counting and naming sheep, a trick I learned as a child, I couldn’t stop wondering why people didn’t get this movie. Not only were they not getting it, they seemed to be hell bent on being against it. And before I knew it, I felt it happening again. As the tears slowly began rolling down my cheeks and into my ears, my body trembling, the imaginary fuzzy white sheep transforming into wicked red-horned centaurs and my hopes of sweet dreams quickly changed into promises of familiar nightmares.
As an incest and molestation survivor, I know what it’s like to live with these secrets within an African American family. You feel as if everyone in the community is silently in on the secret and somehow complicit in directing the film noir that is your life. At the tender age of 7 my leading role as sacrificial lamb began and continued well into my teens. Of course there were happy times on the set as well as sleepless nights when I wanted desperately to tell my older protective brother but for some reason I just figured he was reading from the same script. But how could he know the details of exactly what was happening to me at the hands of trusted family members, coaches, babysitters or extras. Instead of telling him or anyone else, I learned to count and name fuzzy sheep to put myself in a meditative state. Not to mention, I was also convinced this was my assigned punishment for possessing the layered character flaw of “the gay”. So I played my unwilling role and took my systematic punishment in silence, shame and secrecy.
Billy Mayo, Brandon Greenhouse, Angela Bullock
I can still remember the sick feeling I would get when I instinctively knew someone my family had left me in the care of was going to harm or molest me. Here I was child and I innately knew what lay ahead. With absolute recall I can remember a particular evening catching a glimpse of fear affixed to my tiny face as we passed an old antique mirror leading to an uncle’s bedroom. I saw this same exact look on the face of the elder Mr. Johnson brilliantly played by acting veteran, Billy Mayo. I can physically recall the presence of evil on dark nights or rainy afternoons when God would leave the room and the Devil entered as my tormentor. I saw this same evil and rage within the monster of young Mr. Johnson portrayed by newcomer, Brandon Greenhouse. And I can vividly see the naïve visage and gentle eyes of the silent-conspirator turned heroine in the mother of the villain and wife of the victim as perfectly casted in the choice of actress Angela Bullock. Yes, I know first hand what is so very strange about The Johnsons.
So as people continue to submit comments like sick, disgusting, deeply traumatized, or even WOW, I believe we should first ask ourselves, “If this is how I feel as the viewer, how must it feel being the victim of incest?” Personally, I think we make a terrible mistake in vilifying filmmakers, storytellers or messengers because when we do this in some strange way we simultaneously and unwillingly empower the abusers. If films like The Johnsons aren’t openly produced and seriously discussed, we silently say to the vermin that perpetrate these atrocities – “Your secret is safe. Carry on.”
And if we are really being honest, voluntary viewers of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons get off of this carnival ride of intrigue, mystery, and disgust in less than 30 minutes flat; unlike survivors of these heinous and life altering crimes. Survivors unfortunately can never get off this ride and are usually condemned to a lifetime of emotional roller-coasters, nightmares and freak shows. Only the fortunate few get to write a new future through years of therapy, catharsis and forgiveness.
So in my humble opinion, we should be applauding the fact that someone has finally shown true courage in proposing the question, “What If? What if these strange events were happening behind the closed doors of The Smiths, The Rosenbergs, The Mortimers, The Herreras? What if these strange things were happening to me?
Credits: Malcolm Harris