BFI Flare 2021 Review: The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson from director Ali LeRoi and writer Stanley Kalu is an ambitious and tragic glimpse into the life of a black and queer teen facing the sadly inevitable reality of racism in the United States. The film takes a Groundhog Day style repetition of history angle and pairs it with an agonising narrative centred on the overlaps between wealth, sexuality and race – all bolstered by a strong central turn from Steven Silver.

Tunde Johnson (Silver) decides that he will come out to his parents ahead of his discreet student boyfriend’s (Spencer Neville) birthday. His erudite parents accept the news with a positive embrace, beginning Tunde’s night with a gleeful enthusiasm. However, on the way to the party Tunde is pulled over by two racist police officers with a trigger-happy attitude, resulting in his death. Reborn at the start of the same day, Tunde attempts to navigate the time so it will not result in his untimely tragic demise.

Steven Silver leads the feature with an introspective quietness yet the cogs in Tunde’s mind are always turning with a sharp self-awareness. Tunde is a strong student at a prestigious academy where he circles on the exterior of a friendship ground made-up of popular and casually racist jocks and hot girl cliques. He navigates a discreet relationship with jocky classmate Soren, a blond adonis, who also attracts the attention of Tunde’s best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz) producing a love triangle dynamic. These high school theatrics can give The Obituary of Tunde Johnson the atmosphere of a teen television soap, with the shooting style somewhat lacking a polished cinematic sheet and feeling slightly more television movie at points. However, this is not really relevant given the powerful ambition of Stanley Kalu’s narrative.

Entangling numerous factors such as Tunde’s family’s privileged financial status and picture perfect home life signalling he is a near exemplary role model – yet the tragedy of LeRoi’s feature is that this is meaningless in the eyes of a racist society. Juxtaposing the uplifting warm-hearted and supportive nature with which Tunde’s parents react to his coming out with the tragic, almost methodical intimidation, manipulation and murderous behaviour of the police officers further adds to the heartbreaking sense of tragedy in the tale. The repetitive structure of the narrative results in Tunde’s death occurring several times as a result of racist incidents with the overbearing, draining and inevitable nature of this channelled in Silver’s powerful central turn. There is a claustrophobic horror as Tunde fails to escape his fate on continuous attempts, with The Obituary of Tunde Johnson using this as an impressively powerful showcase of the horrors of the ongoing and preventable deaths of black and queer POC deaths in the United States.

The structure of Kalu’s narrative allows us to get a full and insightful portrait into Tunde’s life with each change the character makes to avoid his untimely fate, adding a sense of depth into his life and experiences. Poignant quiet moments brimming with a sexual energy between Tunde and boyfriend Spencer give a touching insight into his romantic life, whilst encounters with Spencer’s father a late night political commentator open further discussions of race, queerness and societal expectations for young males.

Silver’s well textured performance examines the highs and lows of Tunde’s experience from the elation and relief of his coming out to the gradual weariness, frustration and rage at the inevitability of his death. Whilst the film’s concept may feel laced with science-fiction and fantasy through the reincarnation angle, Silver’s performance and LeRoi’s up-front directorial style ground this in a powerful realism and authenticity.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson plays as part of the BFI Flare Festival. Get tickets here.