Kelvin Summerhill (center), graduate of the MFA in Film, Television and Digital Media program, holds the mask that is a central focus of his film, "Black Butterfly." The thesis film will premiere online and virtually at the Atlanta Film Festival on April 22. He is pictured with two actors in the film, Alfred Lamar and Haley Janeda. (Photo: Holly Roman)
MFA Film thesis film to premiere at Atlanta Film Festival
“Black Butterfly,” a thesis film written, directed, produced and edited by Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22), has been selected as one of the narrative short films to premiere at the 47th Annual Atlanta Film Festival.
“This is a huge accomplishment since more than 10,000 of filmmakers submitted films to the festival and only 40 or so narrative shorts have been selected,” said Neil Landau, executive director of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program at the University of Georgia. “This is a big milestone for Kelvin and our program.”
The festival runs April 20-30 at multiple venues in Atlanta and virtually.
“Black Butterfly,” is a 13-minute film about an ambitious Black man experiencing a mental breakdown on the day of his dream promotion. What should be an exciting day for the main character turns into a nightmare as the code-switching mask that he wears in the world begins to crack.
Summerhill was inspired to write the film to acknowledge mental health and as a way to honor a friend whom he lost to suicide.
“My goal with this film was always to save lives,” Summerhill said. “That’s been my number one mission and vision and what got me through looking at a blank sheet of paper when you’re coming up with an idea. My hope is that by showing it on a huge platform, it will reach people who see it and realize that it’s okay to discuss mental health struggles. It’s okay to seek healing; it’s okay to recognize it. And, most importantly, the film says ‘your life matters.’”
Throughout the film, Summerhill has left numerous Easter eggs, or hidden messages, for the audience, from the title that comes from boxing legend Mohammed Ali’s mantra, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” to using the poem “We Where the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which is used as a framework for the plot. Even the main character, Clay Frazier, is intended to be someone who could be molded as a work in progress, with nods to Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., also known as Mohammad Ali, and Joe Frazier, another boxing legend.
Summerhill, who currently works as a directing assistant for Disney’s “Decendants 4” which is wrapping up filming in Atlanta, acknowledged that it takes a village to make a film and there are many who helped him with this endeavor.
“I got through the process because of Neil Landau, my thesis chair,” Summerhill said. “He had a personal touch along the way looking at every draft and every cut. His insight has been invaluable.”
Summerhill also consulted with director Chuck Hayward, an executive producer for “Ted Lasso” and writer/producer of “WandaVision.” Summerhill and Hayward were paired through the UGA MFA Film’s Industry Mentor program, connecting students with industry professionals who help with project guidance, industry advice and networking.
“Chuck, he’s been amazing,” Summerhill said of the relationship that has resulted in valuable feedback. “His level of industry experience has really helped me grow. Another thing about Chuck is that representation matters, and being able to see someone who looks like me performing at such a high level has been so impactful.”
In addition to Landau and Hayward, Summerhill said he was greatly helped by Shandra McDonald of the MFA Film faculty, and former MFA film faculty member Bryan Cole. He also used many resources available to him, including much of the crew which was comprised of Georgia Film Academy students; current MFA Film student Jordyn Seever, who helped the costumes and creating the progression of the cracking mask; and Dan Cathy, owner of Trilith Studios, chairman of Chick-fil-A and supporter of the MFA Film program. Cathy and the Trilith and Chick-fil-A teams were instrumental in helping Summerhill secure film locations, including Chick-fil-a headquarters.
Summerhill graduated with the inaugural class of the UGA MFA Film program, which educates students for a year in Athens on the UGA campus and at Athena Studios, and a year at UGA’s satellite campus in Trilith Village and in partnership with Georgia Film Academy, adjacent to Trilith Studios. Summerhill, who graduated from Morehouse College, discovered the new MFA Film program when he was looking for a change after living in New York pursuing an acting career. He always loved writing and was interested in exploring directing, and the location of this program near Atlanta was appealing.
“Atlanta is the gold rush for film; why would I leave this place?” Summerhill asked himself. “The rest is history.”
“Black Butterfly” premieres Saturday, April 22 at 9:30 p.m. at The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta.
A package of six short films can be purchased here.
Patrons have ten days to view the films and are eligible to vote for the best short film.
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