Black high schooler Tunde Johnson is trapped in a time loop where each day ends the same way: with the reading out of his obituary.
There’s a sight we’ve become all too familiar with over the past decade: black teens being killed by cops. In the opening moments of The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the feature debut by director Ali LeRoi (co-creator of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris), news coverage of such a shooting dominates the television in Tunde’s (Steven Silver) living room. While his father takes notes on the reporting for his work (he is a visual artist, whose work explores black masculinity in America), Tunde and his family don’t seem at all surprised by the news. This is, after all, merely a reminder of the lived experience of many black Americans: authorities pose an ever-present threat to their lives.
This news story is quickly eclipsed by a more intimate concern of Tunde’s: he comes out as gay to his parents in a wonderfully emotive scene which expresses his struggle to come out, as well as his euphoria at having done so. However, the threat of police brutality quickly returns as later that evening, Tunde is fatally shot in a racially charged encounter with the authorities. His death is quickly met with the reading of his obituary, but rather than signifying the end of his life, this proves to be a moment of rebirth, as he wakes up in his bed at the start of the very same day.
The film’s time loop invites obvious comparisons to Groundhog Day, with the added caveat that Tunde remains largely unaware of the events of the day. This maintains his adolescent naiveté as he fixates on, not the looming threat of death, but a love triangle with closeted high school heartthrob Soren (Spencer Neville) and his best friend, the supremely popular Marley (Nicola Peltz).
Unlike the meticulous repetition of Groundhog Day in which scenes are restaged to metronomic precision, the chance to redo the same day is rendered as a source of liberation for Tunde. Part of this is due to Steven Holleran’s cinematography, which develops expressive shots that draw out the shifting emotions throughout each time loop.
Jump cuts are also used liberally throughout the film, playing into the conceit of time skipping around whilst also highlighting how quickly an encounter with law enforcement can turn sour. These jump cuts also suggest the two sides of Tunde’s identity, his blackness and his sexuality, not quite coalescing. Pointedly, his father tackles this theme on a huge canvas displaying a mosaic of black faces, perhaps suggesting a fracturing of black identity. The film is highly subjective in this way and there is even the suggestion at one point that Tunde’s experiences could be hallucination, as he pops his prescription Xanax throughout the day.
But this film is far from surreal and reality comes through most prevalently in the many scenes of police officers shooting Tunde. We witness these shootings through dashcams, mobile phones, security cameras, and even via a 911 call. Such realistic depictions of police brutality keep the film grounded amongst its more subjective elements.
What’s interesting in the context of so many other films at this year’s BFI Flare, which deal with the trouble of coming out, is how Tunde’s experience of race is shown to be far more constricting than his sexuality. “It’s the 21st century—you can say it,” remarks Marley at Tunde’s reluctance to use the word ‘gay’. For all the hardship Tunde encounters with his sexuality, there is ultimately light at the end of the tunnel.
As Tunde struggles to coalesce both his blackness and his sexuality, the film also ultimately struggles to combine these two threads convincingly. Despite this, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a bold exploration of both race and sexuality in modern America.
Words by Jake Abatan
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