Alfonso Johnson's Film "Moths & Butterflies" Teaches Us How to Live Through Our Diagnoses and will Air on HBO Feb. 7
A butterfly is seen as angelic and peaceful, and enjoyed by most. But, a moth, who’s from the same insect family, is seen as ugly and is despised. Award-winning Filmmaker Alfonso Johnson took that same concept and turned it into a short film entitled “Moths & Butterflies,” which airs on HBO on Feb. 7.
The film is a little over 16 minutes and is about Lenny, a Black man who’s been diagnosed with a mental illness but lives a productive life. It can be a battle with Lenny to fight through his illness while doing everyday task like going to work.
People tend to treat individuals with mental illnesses like moths because they see them as different, said Johnson. Moths & Butterflies is meant to show that it’s okay to have a mental illness because it doesn’t define who you are.
“You can live beautifully with your diagnosis,” said Johnson.
Johnson took a little more than a year to put this film together, which is long for a short film, he said. He wanted the right balance between drama and comedy, without the film being too much of each.
Main character Lenny—played by Amari Cheatom, who’s known for his role in Roman J. Israel Es—reconnects with an old friend Cherisse—played by Gillian Glasco from The Good Fight—who is also diagnosed with a mental illness. Cherisse’s character is more open and free, while Lenny tries hard to contain himself in every situation he’s in. He doesn’t like trying new things, but Cherisse eventually opens his eyes to a new world. A world full of letting go and not letting something like a diagnosis stop him from trying new things, like love.
Johnson was born and grew up in Queens, NY, and like many in the Black community, he saw his loved ones suffer from mental illnesses. And, although mental health is a big topic now, it’s still a taboo and has stigma wrapped around it. With his film Moths & Butterflies, Johnson is showing a different perspective of mental health.
Just because Lenny has to try harder to get through daily life, doesn’t mean people should treat him—or anyone with a mental illness—like a moth, said Johnson. As humans, when we tend to not understand something, we try to get rid of it, but Johnson suggest sympathizing and listening to others to become more understanding.
At 21, a close friend of Johnson’s committed suicide and he struggled for years trying to understand it all.
It took until a year ago, when Johnson was 30, for him to have an open conversation with his mother about the things he saw and experienced while he was younger. Johnson does admit that if he had this talk with his mother as a kid, he wouldn’t have really understood what was going on.
“I’ve seen family members told to their face that they need Jesus more than their medicine,” he wrote on his website. “So after years of seeing people I know and love struggle, I wanted to face it and talk about it in a very honest and human way, that doesn't perpetuate any negative images or stereotypes.”
Johnson knows the power he has and how he can influence others with his films, which is why he thoroughly thinks about each step before going forward.
“A large part of what I do, I try to not put any toxic masculinity things on [people]” he said. “I want people to exercise empathy.”
Moths & Butterflies won the 2018 American Black Film Festival HBO Short Film Competition—the same award won by Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther. The award also came with a grand prize of $10,000. His films have appeared in over 100 film festivals internationally, according to his site.
Moths & Butterflies will air on HBO during Black History Month on February 7. To find out more about Alfonso Johnson and his films, visit his site.