In his feature debut, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, filmmaker Ali LeRoi uses the time-loop trope as a lens through which to examine the life experiences of a gay, black teenager in contemporary Los Angeles.
Tunde Johnson (Steve Silver) comes from a comfortable, upper-middle-class home. As soon as Tunde steps outside, though, his life is on the line.
Gunned down by two beat cops during a routine car stop, an all-too recognisable tragedy, Tunde awakens back in his bed the morning of his death with nothing but a vague sense of unease. An omniscient narrator relates the facts of Tunde’s life and death to us.
Tunde plays out the same lunchtime conversation with his mean-girl BFF Marley (Nicola Petz). Marley is obsessed with lacrosse jock Soren (Spencer Neville), not suspecting that he and Tunde are an item.
More simply than Tunde’s recurring deaths, which lose little weight in their recurrence, Stanley Kalu’s script, written as a student at LSC, conveys a feeling of exhausted futility.
As Tunde’s awareness of his situation grows, and with it a sense of doom, he grows more weary and withdrawn. He reflects on his status in society – as in Soren’s refusal to be open about their relationship – even as he’s forced to replay the same events – including his own coming-out to his parents (Sammi Rotibi & Tembi Locke) – over and over.
Tunde’s father’s art is informed by Nigerian culture; notions of which, like rebirth and ancestrality, provide a spiritual underpinning to Tunde’s experiences.
As events replay, our frame of reference shifts, as we see the other side of a call, or the dash-cam footage of a patrol vehicle, but the final outcome is the same. Soren’s news-anchor dad (David James Elliot), commenting on another police shooting prior to Tunde’s own, pays lip service that, “Black experience can only be lived.”
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson proves this sentiment as insufficient. Just to live is not enough; you must be seen, acknowledged. As in the final image of 400 Blows, a film on which Tunde presents an essay, the film challenges us not to look away.