In recent years, few films have been as controversial as Ari Aster’s 2011 short film, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. In just 29-minutes, the shocking and taboo short film, which was also Aster’s thesis film from American Film Institute’s graduate school, AFI Conservatory, absolutely shocked the film world.
Though the Hereditary and Midsommar director is a Jewish man, his breakout short film The Strange Thing About the Johnsons stars Billy Mayo, Brandon Greenhouse, and Angela Bullock as a Black family caught in a web of insect and abuse. It was a film that Aster began thinking about after discussing taboos with his friends before his first year at AFI.
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons follows Sidney Johnson (Mayo), an acclaimed poet who had endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of his son, Isaiah (Greenhouse). After Isaiah’s mother Joan (Bullock) discovers Isaiah abusing Sidney, the older man leaves his memoir Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson under his wife’s pillow in an attempt to tell her everything that has been occurring.
However, Isaiah discovers the memoir before Joan reads it. What happens next escalates into a physical fight between Joan and Isiah, eventually leading to one of the characters’ death.
When The Strange Thing About the Johnsons was released online, it immediately went viral due to its themes. Many people also did not like that Aster, a Jewish man, was centering a Black family.
Aster told Shadow and Act at the time, “The color of the family isn’t important. We certainly assumed that casting black actors in a film that tackles such transgressive themes would create something of a stir, and it would be a lie to say that we weren’t hesitant, especially as many people were advising us against the decision.”
However, Huffington Post contributor Malcolm Harris who is a incest and molestation survivor said that we should be “applauding the fact that someone has finally shown true courage in proposing the question 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?”