Tunde Johnson is a normal 17 year old boy. He’s Black; he’s gay; he loves his parents; and he’s been sleeping with the hottest guy in school, even though he’s dating Tunde’s best friend.
Oh, and, no matter what he does, every night Tunde is murdered by the Los Angeles Police Department. And then he wakes up again on the morning of his death and does it all over again.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson — showing now during OutfestLA’s largely virtual edition — was written by a college student at USC named Stanley Kalu, who entered the screenplay in a competition called The LAUNCH back in 2018. He won the grand prize, which was to have the winning screenplay produced into a feature with a budget of at least $1 million. The finished film premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, where TheQueerReview editor James Kleinmann was on hand to speak with Kalu along with the film’s director and stars; you can find that interview here.
The film feels especially urgent and important now, released as it is amidst the largest sustained social justice movement America has ever seen. This has already been a historically fraught year, with Americans taking to the streets for months on end to protest the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of the police. This week in particular saw the protests reignited by the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, where a policeman grabbed him by the shirt and shot him seven times in the back while he was walking away.
The genius of Tunde Johnson is that the film takes this story we’ve seen play out in the media far too many times and turns it into something intensely personal. Steven Silver is fantastic in the title role, playing Tunde as a normal teenager who is dealing with the horrific, ever-present possibility of his impending death as he tries to go about his day. Unlike in most Groundhog Day tales, of which there have been many lately — Palm Springs, Happy Death Day, and Russian Doll, to name a few successful incarnations — in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the character doesn’t freak out about the situation he’s found himself in and lose his mind for a while before trying to get out of it.
Tunde instead lives every version of his day with the knowledge that he may soon be killed by police, no matter what he does — which is a reality that many Black Americans live with every day. They’re not literally experiencing the same day over and over, but for Black people in this country, the reality of police violence and the potential for a fatal confrontation hovers over them always. The details may be different, but this is a story we see play out over and over.
My favorite device in the film is the way the scenes of Tunde’s death play out differently each time. A lot of these types of films get bogged down in repeated details — a conversation with repeating dialogue, the same song on the radio when the alarm clock goes off — but Tunde Johnson lets the differences tell the story. And, like how it happens in the media, sometimes the only differences are the manner in which the death is conveyed to the public. The first time, we see Tunde killed from his point of view, but for much of the rest of the film, we watch him die through police dashcams, or as someone in the car with him live-streams his death (as in the case of Philando Castile), or we watch it on a security camera, or we hear a recording of a 9-1-1 call that relays the event. His death is often not his own, becoming a mediated object for the consumption of society.
It’s important, then, that much of The Obituary of Tunde Johnson focuses on the moments that fill his life. The first time the clock resets, it’s jarring to see Tunde’s normal school day follow the conventions of a typical LA-set teen movie; there are hot jocks proving their manhood to each other, pretty popular girls who spend their time gossiping, and typical underage-drinking ragers with flashing lights and thumping music. Through it all walks a Black, gay student who’s living at the intersection of those identities, dealing with an oppression the other students could never conceive of.
The interactions between Tunde and his secret boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville) are sweet, with both actors giving heartfelt performances that really sell their attraction and love for one another, and then painful, as Tunde longs for a relationship out in the open that Soren just isn’t willing to provide. Similarly, his friendship with Marley (Nicola Peltz) is fun to watch; there’s genuine affection there, which sours and turns to spite as the film goes on.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is an effort to restore dignity in life to someone whose dignity and life were taken away from them, as all the strongest obituaries are. It’s sweet and heartfelt, but there’s a real churning pain behind it all. In its intimate portrayal of the grinding, devastating, exhausting effects of institutionalized police violence against Black bodies, this is one of the most important films of the year. It’s also one of the best.
By Eric Langberg