'The Obituary of Tunde Johnson': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A dizzying debut that asks the big questions.
9/8/2019

Ali LeRoi’s debut feature examines the life of a black gay high school student trapped in a 'Groundhog Day' cycle of death.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is the story of a Nigerian-American high school student from an upper middle-class family in Los Angeles. The gay offspring of a supportive and warm immigrant couple, Tunde (Steven Silver) plunges into a spiral of reoccurring death by police violence. Each time he is killed, the omniscient narrator recites different versions of his basic obit: "Tunde Johnson departed this life 9:38 p.m., May 28, 2020, at the hands of police officers in Los Angeles." After each death, Tunde lurches himself awake again, breathing as if he’d almost drowned. Trapped in this cyclical setup, he finds himself back at the beginning of the same distressing school day again and again.

An agonizing tale about the weight society hoists upon too many black gay men’s weary shoulders, it’s the kind of film that lingers in your mind days after you’ve seen it, as much due to the relevant subject matter as to Tunde’s penetrating gaze. The cinematography plays with foreground and background, often deploying a visual vocabulary of two-shots where one character is in focus and the other is blurry, both usually in profile. In a scene where Tunde and his boyfriend lay down next to each other and discuss their relationship, the camera goes from shooting them horizontally to standing them up to appear vertical for a beat before returning to horizontal.

It would be a more interesting flourish if the movie weren’t already loaded with them. Written by Stanley Kalu as a 19-year-old student at USC, the script feels like the work of a young up-and-comer throwing idea after idea against the wall and hoping something sticks. The pic tackles so much — police violence, coming out, Nigerian cosmology, drug addiction and bullying — that it would be hard for any film of this ambition to sufficiently pay off.

This abundance of subject matter combined with the circular storytelling structure makes for an intense watch that makes it easy for the viewer to get overwhelmed. (Its non-linear structure shares some cinematic DNA with Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.) Silver’s standout performance excepted, the middling acting and puttering dialogue don’t help much, either.

But maybe overwhelming the viewer is the point. It becomes increasingly jarring each time Tunde’s next death inevitably approaches. In the blink of an eye, he goes from being an everyday teenager who smokes joints, bumps hip-hop in the car and has dating troubles to somehow being an absolute threat in the eyes of the police officers that shoot him dead. That Tunde’s first death happens in almost exactly the same way as the police shooting of the black male teen (Algee Smith) in George Tillman’s The Hate U Give speaks to how cops gunning down black men at routine traffic stops is practically a trope at this point.

This is not a “there are good cops” kind of movie. White police officers are the grim reapers in Tunde’s story; any interaction with a white police officer signals his eventual death. His one friendly interaction with law enforcement happens to be with a black woman officer and is the rare comedic scene in the movie.

The film seems to balance out its representation of white cops by presenting Tunde’s boyfriend (Spencer Neville), his best friend since childhood (Nicola Peltz) and his boyfriend’s father (David James Elliot) as redeemable white characters who, despite their flaws, are basically good people. It does feel strange, though, that all of Tunde’s confidants, his boyfriend, best friend and therapist, are all white. All this begs the question: For whom is LeRoi making this film? The push and pull between getting to know Tunde and calling out white moderates is dizzying by the film’s end.

In many ways, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson defies genre. It is a drama that whips around from psychological thriller to magical realism to generic teen narrative. The scenes where Tunde dies often feel like something out of a psychological thriller. The high school scenes mimic soapy adolescent dramas (Silver’s first major acting credit was the controversial Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why). One tonal shift that elevates the story stems from the idea that the deceased are ancestors who exist just beyond the thin veil separating life from death. Offered up as Nigerian wisdom by Tunde’s parents, this philosophy presents the audience with a way to process and grieve Tunde’s many deaths in real-time.

While the first half of the movie lags, its second half is much more on pace and gives the audience some ground to stand on amid the ever-shifting points of view of the characters. The film mostly uses its non-chronological structure to its advantage, making backward and forward shifts in time feel effortless. 

As the title indicates, the pic itself is an obituary, but it’s also something more. Each subsequent time a cop kills Tunde, the scenes feel like rituals that hold vigil for real-life martyrs like Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and several others who have similarly perished. By inserting Nigerian ritual into Tunde’s story, LeRoi reimagines the lives of these people in a spiritual context that allows them to fly above the societal weight of martyrdom.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a movie that doesn’t play it safe. And if you can stick it out through the sharp turns, you’ll likely emerge asking the big questions about how to uplift the Tundes of this world.

Production companies: Zgreen Entertainment, Jason Shuman Productions, The Launch Productions
Cast: Steven Silver, Spencer Neville, Nicola Peltz

Director: Ali LeRoi
Screenwriter: Stanley Kalu
Executive producers: Eduardo Cisneros, Dr. Madeleine Sherak, Roya Rastegar, Sanjay Sharma
Producers: Zachary Green, Jason Shuman, Marni Bond, Chuck Bond
Director of photography: Steven Holleran
Production designer: Adriana Serrano
Editor: Shannon Baker Davis
Sound: Troy Ambroff
Score: Darryl Jones
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)

U.S. Sales: Paradigm

104 minutes