Writer: Stanley Kalu
Director: Ali LeRoi
On 28 May 2020 Tunde Johnson will be killed by the police in Los Angeles and Ali LeRoi’s new film is his epitaph staged as a Groundhog Day cycle of repetition in which the audience hope Tunde’s inevitable fate will change. Written by Stanley Kalu and showing as part of a digital BFI Flare 2021, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson uses that fateful day to explore race, politics and teen love as Tunde learns more about the life he could have had.
It is 18-year-old Tunde Johnson’s last day on earth and he will spend it coming out to his parents, going to school and illicitly meeting his boyfriend, lacrosse player Soren – only Soren is hiding his sexuality while dating Tunde’s female best friend Marley. Forced to relive this final day as various outcomes present themselves, Tunde’s fate is sealed each time by an encounter with the police.
Kalu and LeRoi’s film operates on two slightly distinct levels; at its most ambitious – and most successful – The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a searing comment on the institutional racism of American law enforcement, giving the central character an everyman quality that represents all the ways in which innocent, young black men are needlessly killed by officers with itchy trigger fingers.
There is a huge cumulative power in seeing that unfold over seven versions of the same day and the film is most impactful when Tunde’s unexpected death is replayed. LeRoi and Kalu stage this in different ways, sometimes seeing the same event from another angle, perhaps played off screen or in the background emphasising the relative invisibility of these events in the media. Scenario six memorably focuses on the actor’s face as the audience slowly and painfully watches his life expire; it is powerful stuff.
But the film also uses a far less convincing personal level that relies on teen melodrama and a love triangle between Tunde, Marley and their mutual lover Soren. Again, these play out in different ways across the seven versions of this story, some in which Marley remains in the dark, some where one or both boys open up about their sexuality and others in which various betrayals occur bringing tensions to a head. Yet, none manage to grip with the same intensity as those last moments of Tunde’s life.
The film in some ways is peeling an onion, showing us all the layers of Tunde’s life which includes a love life, friends, therapy, a possible former addiction to Benzodiazepines, a supportive parental relationship and an interest in film studies that Tunde may want to pursue as a career. And each new perspective offers greater insight into each of these strands as the breadth and complexity of his life adds to the tragedy of its loss. Only, these areas feel too thinly conceived to fully convince particularly as Kalu and LeRoi can’t decide between revealing new information each time to enhance what we know and creating parallel versions with different outcomes.
Steven Silver plays Tunde as essentially a decent and kind character, a little reserved and aware of his status as a target for bullies and stop and search patrols but plays with different degrees of resolution and strength across the changing timelines. Nicola Peltz as Marley is equally betrayed, bitter and friendly while Spencer Neville probably offers the most interestingly ambiguous performance as Soren who even after seven versions of the story is hard to pin down.
LeRoi and Kalu’s approach nods to Christopher Nolan’s timeline-bending films like Momento and Tenet but uses the endlessly recurring day to make an important and serious political statement about the lost potential of young men like Tunde who continue to experience these events again and again.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021