by Libby Carr
A bildungsroman of the harsh and the heartfelt, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a haunting meditation on police brutality, young queer love, and reliance – on others and on oneself. Written by Stanley Kalu and directed by Ali LeRoi, the film follows Tunde Johnson, a gay Nigerian-American teenager in Los Angeles, through a Groundhog Day-esque series of his own death. Tunde is killed by police and forced to live the same day over and over again, his evenings brought to a brutal end by racially motivated police violence.
In the first scene of the film, Tunde comes out to his parents while a news broadcast about racism in America hums in the background. The coming out goes well, but as Tunde rushes off to his boyfriend’s 18th birthday party, we understand they have made a pact to come out together that evening, and boyfriend Soren O’Connell, who Variety describes as having “perhaps the whitest character name ever put onscreen,” is deeply closeted and hesitant. Before Tunde can arrive, however, he is pulled over by police. Despite doing everything right — hands on the wheel, announcing his movements — the skittish cops kill him on the street. Tunde wakes up gasping in his own bed as we hear his obituary read aloud to us, a motif that runs the course of the film.
Following the first murder, Obituary turns from a shocking narrative into a film with less story and more meditation on adolescence. The joys in the film come through Tunde, seeing him happy with his friends and Soren. We notice the small changes Tunde makes to his final day as we see it repeated; we discover his best friend Marley is sleeping with (and in love with) Soren. As Tunde repeatedly experiments with different ways to tell Marley, win Soren’s commitment, and discover his place as a young adult, we are invited to focus on his spiritual survival alongside his literal survival. This French New Wave reference is not inconspicuous. Early in the film, we watch Tunde and his friends in film class, where they analyze the last scene of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
If the joy of the film is portrayed through Tunde’s loving banter with his parents and friends, the tragedy of the film comes from the artful nuances of his deaths. As we move through the film, every death became more distant. At first, we are close to Tunde: we see the bullets pierce his shirt, see the smoke, see the blood. But the second time we watch Tunde die, it is the same death through dashcam footage from inside the police car. We are separated by a screen from Tunde’s reality. Later, we only recognize his voice and hear gunshots from down the block. The final time we watch Tunde die, we are not privy to the escalation at all, but we watch him strangled, head against the concrete, and we are forced to endure. Ali LeRoi describes this shot as a metaphor for the greater violence against Black people in America: “You might want to look away, and you might look away, but when you look back, it’s still happening.” Just like the repetitive cycle of Black death in the U.S. today, the audience is more and more removed every time Tunde is killed. We feel ourselves pulling away from the violence while Tunde lives every day in fear of how it will end.
This film would be even more challenging to watch if it were not for LeRoi and Kalu’s commitment to display the love in Tunde’s life alongside the death. This is a film about a life, not a death. As a result, the audience sees Tunde loved as often as, if not more than, we see the violence against him that makes up the conceit of the film. There are heartfelt moments between Tunde and his best friend Marley; a beautiful sex scene with Soren; gentle and caring interactions with Tunde’s parents. It is in these artistic decisions, as opposed to in the details of representation of Tunde’s life, that the film finds its strength.
Visually, however, LeRoi has created a beautiful film. Often in a single shot, focus is racked between multiple objects in the frame to emphasize the variability of every iteration of Tunde’s final day. One rack in particular is essential for the final turn of the film. In one film class scene, focus shifts to and from one of Tunde’s unnamed classmates, a Black girl. In the final moments of the film, Tunde survives the night; the cost, we discover, is this girl’s life. Sydney Harris, as we learn her name in death, has been killed by police, and the Groundhog Day cycle has presumably shifted to her, just like the focus. This is an example of an overarching issue with the film. Often, we are presented with a successful concept, but lacking the detail to flesh out the execution. This system may have been more successful, for example, if we had learned more about Sydney Harris earlier in the film. Nonetheless, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a visually stunning film that tells a painful and timely story.
LeRoi and Kalu’s story dovetailed nicely with Patrick Wimp’s Brothers from the Suburbs, a short film portraying three Black teenage boys navigating a wealthy, suburban private school. It is a playful portrayal of the same racism Tunde Johnson faces in his world. Unlike Tunde, however, these three boys escape literal death; instead, they get caught up in a rain of micro- and macro-aggressions.
The most charming scene of Brothers is a montage of the three boys taking turns in the bathroom, getting ready for a much-anticipated party. Whimsical colors surround them as they shave, smoke, and dance into the mirror. When the trio arrives at the party, however, they are told by their classmate’s mother that it’s a private party. Even when they explain they were invited, she refuses to let them in. But the text-ex-machina arrives! The party is, of course, in the exorbitantly large carriage house around back. The boys spend most of their time at the party drinking and smoking in choke-close shots. It is evident that they are not supposed to be there, but they bounce jokes and side-eyes off each other to tune out the white kids.
Eventually, the boys dip when the mother shows up with cops, trying to get them to arrest the Black boys that have infiltrated her party. If this was a scene in Tunde Johnson’s story, the presence of cops would be a point of no return. But in Brothers, the cops are positioned to make the racist mother seem ridiculous; they refuse to arrest the boys, and the trio escapes — but not without a “I don’t see color!” quip from one of their classmates.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson attacks the present state of anti-Blackness in the U.S. more effectively than Brothers from the Suburbs, though they deal with different densities of the same issue. The different kinds of love and affection displayed in Obituary feel indispensable in a film about Black death. Similarly, the scenes of joyful affection between the three main characters in Brothers… feel radical. Both films engage in an invaluable effort to portray tender and vulnerable Black masculinity on screen. Similarly, both films feel extremely modern, from their use of slang, to social media, to music throughout. However, they root all of their characters in extreme wealth, to the loss of potential idiosyncrasies of a variety of relationships to class. This homogeneity is where both films lose some of their radical potential.
None of the films I saw at Austin Film Festival, including Apartment 413 and Collect Call, passed the Bechdel Test, unless you count a three-line quip in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson referencing an eating disorder. However, the films, particularly Obituary and Brothers, tackled other issues and allowed me to ponder a Bechdel Test for Black characters or for queer characters. Ultimately, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a successful commentary on the state of anti-Blackness in the U.S., even if it is lacking in character idiosyncrasy.