Known for his prolific work on numerous late 1990s and 2000s Black sitcoms and movies, Ali LeRoi's debut effort, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, is audacious, ambitious and, at times, hostile. With many of his earlier projects involving Chris Rock, including being co-creator of Everybody Hates Chris and the television series spinoff of Are We There Yet?, along with writing and directing for shows like Survivor’s Remorse and writing comedy films like Head of State, it is safe to say that The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, though a very timely, political and social piece of work, deeply differs from the types of material LeRoi has come to be known for creating.
The film, which depicts a Black gay teen who is caught in an endless loop of his police-involved death, is the result of a script from recent USC alum Stanley Kalu, who wrote the project when he was just 19. His script won a $1 million screenplay competition through The Launch, that had LeRoi as a judge. LeRoi signed on as a producer for the film and decided to make it his feature directorial debut. Harkening back to time loop films like Groundhog Day, the film chronicles the final day in the life of Tunde Johnson, played by Steven Silver (13 Reasons Why, NBC's upcoming Council of Dads).
Silver sat down with Shadow And Act shortly after the premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. “When I first read this script, I knew it was one that I couldn’t half-step. I felt a great deal of responsibility because these are such real topics that could heal people,” he said.
Silver’s character, Johnson, born to wealthy Nigerian expats (Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke), is a Black gay teen in high school, who, aside from everything else he’s dealing with, is in the middle of a conundrum: his very closeted jock boyfriend, Soren (Spencer Neville), is in the midst of a burgeoning relationship with his best friend, Marley (Nicola Peltz), who is unaware of the relationship between the two. On top of this, there is an even bigger quandary. One night, after coming out to his parents, Tunde smokes a joint and heads out for a drive. During the ride, he calls to inform Soren, who doesn’t seem enthusiastic about the news, and he hears Marley in the background. However, this isn't the worst of his problems.
After hanging up on Soren, Tunde is pulled over by cops and murdered after he reaches for his phone. But, he’s not dead. Instead, he gets immersed into this time loop and begins reliving the same day over and over again, with his death always being the end result. Each time he “returns from the dead,” Tunde tries to correct the course of the situation he’s in by introducing his parents to Soren earlier, telling Marley earlier, telling Soren’s father about them, but each time, even in the most optimal of situations, the result is the same. This doesn't change until he has an awakening and finally sees that the key is examining how his relationships with these people impact him and not them.
Photo: The Launch Productions
At first glance, the optics of the film may be off-putting to some. It’s one thing to see a Black teen caught in this vicious time loop, reliving his death at the hands of police, but for two white teens to be at the center of this cycle is another layer in itself. Tunde’s life (or technically, his afterlife), as a Black gay man in America, is made all the more difficult by the burden of white privilege. In one of Tunde’s many deaths at the hands of police, one of the encounters is specifically provoked by Soren, but somehow, the Black teen is the one that ends up getting killed. But if you look at Tunde’s surroundings and the social construct that the film presents, the setup and characterizations serve as a bastion and manifestation of said white privilege. Understanding Kalu’s vantage point in crafting this story, it makes all the more sense. At the film’s world premiere, Kalu said, “I’m from Nigeria, and I’ve lived all over Africa. I came to America, it was the first time I was a minority. This was the first time I realized that my body meant something to other people and was partially not my own. When I came, and I kept seeing people that look like me-- tall Black dudes--die every day, it was a very simple thing; this is a cycle of death that is continued. The time loop comes from my general feeling that it just wasn’t Michael Brown and others--all of us were continually dying.”
From homophobia to mental health, the film touches on a lot of themes, and one of them, perhaps the biggest, is police brutality. Viewers see that even in the moments when Tunde is obeying commands and even when he's in the presence of white people, he's still targeted, especially in the scene where Soren was the aggressor. Embedded in these scenes is a message about the state of policing in America. Silver explains that while he respects the honor and bravery that officers exhibit on the job, one that he says he doesn’t think he would be able to do, he hopes that the project would enlighten them on our pain. “I hope officers will see this film as us opening our hearts to them so they have [the] insight into the collective pain we’re experiencing with each new unarmed death. I think it’s important we remember that we’re all stuck on this planet together. It’s like being in a marriage with no option for divorce. And I believe this film is able to communicate the Black experience of said relationship in a way that transcends words, a visceral way. It’s showing what can’t be captured through those heated articulate conversations on late night news. To me, this film is us giving visuals to the core of the Black psyche right now. Same as for the LGTBQ community as well. So to each group, I hope you don’t feel attacked. I hope you choose to listen instead, so we can figure this thing out. Because we’re together on this planet till death do us part.”
Steven Silver, Ali LeRoi, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Kalu and Spencer Neville attend "The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson" photo call during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 08, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
About halfway through Tunde’s many, many deaths, though it’s not explicitly made clear in the film, he begins to realize something isn't right. While, from the viewer’s perspective, we don’t know if he actually realizes he’s “dying,” he definitely understands that he has to begin to make changes in order to stop whatever is happening to him. Tunde cannot end the constant time loop without an “untethering” of himself from others' needs at his own expense. Silver believes that the ending and a theme presented by the conclusion of the film has to deal with self-love.
On Black boys who may see themselves in Tunde, Silver said, “I think art can be spiritual and whatever the viewer takes away is a personalized message specifically curated for that individual. [What I personally took away is that] Tunde realizes that the loop he has been in throughout the film was not an experience unique to him. Tunde realizes his greatness and worth by the end and comes into his most evolved self. He realizes that the loop will hurt others like him and that it will take a group effort to dismantle it, so each person needs to come to the table as his/her/their most evolved self. He realizes that self-love is about something bigger than the self.”
In what’s mostly an anxious, tense piece of work, however, is a story that isn’t always the case for Black LGBTQ youth: acceptance. When he comes out to his parents, Tunde is met with unconditional love. Silver noted, “In my opinion, Tunde's parents Ade and Yomi show us that there is another choice that can be made. Although Ade seems to struggle with his son's sexuality, I think he ultimately puts his ego to the side and walks into the possibility that the family will end up with more love overall if Tunde is supported in his identity because the alternative was Tunde's death. And with LGBTQ youth being almost 5 times more likely to have attempted suicide, I think Ade made the right choice because the death of any child will put not just one person, but entire families into a loop of pain. Why choose pain when you can choose love and support?”
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on October 9. It is awaiting distribution.
Photo: The Launch Productions