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Austin Film Festival 2019: “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” Film Review

“The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” was chosen as this year’s opening night film at Austin Film Festival. It played to a packed Paramount Theatre on Thursday, October 24, with writer Stanley Kalu, director Ali LeRoi and producer Zachary Green in attendance.

L-R: Senior Film Program Director Casey Baron, director Ali LeRoi, writer Stanley Kalu and producer Zachary Green | Photo credit: Jack Plunkett/AFF

The film stars Steven Silver (“13 Reasons Why”) as the titular Tunde Johnson. Tunde is a 17-year-old in Los Angeles, whose parents are from Nigeria. He is also gay, though only his best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz) and his secret boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville) know that. Tunde and Soren have a pact to come out to their parents on the same night, and it’s during Tunde’s drive to Soren’s birthday party that night that he is pulled over and shot by a cop, dying on the street.

And then he wakes up, panicked and in pain. In a narrative structure we’ve seen before, from “Groundhog Day” to “Happy Death Day,” Tunde is forced to relive the same day over and over. But as a drama about an unarmed black teen being killed by the police over and over again, this is much more emotionally charged than those comedies.

In “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” Kalu and LeRoi have crafted a narrative that will draw you in and not let go. As you watch Tunde relive the day he dies for the first time, you’re sure of what to expect: It will all happen again. But that’s not quite true; Tunde’s death at the hands of one or many police officers comes differently every time. It shocks Tunde and the audience because we know what the outcome will be, but not the method or timing in which it’s delivered.

We see him killed over and over, but sometimes we see the gore and sometimes we’re seeing it through a live social media stream or a security camera. There is nothing to comfort you. No matter how removed you are from it, Tunde’s death is horrifying and undeserved. The very last death that we see him suffer is the longest and hardest to watch, extending the impact that the film and its visuals will have on you.

But, shockingly, the movie has plenty of comedic dialogue. In a movie filled with heartbreak and tragedy, it’s nice that there are moments when you can just laugh. Many of them come from Tunde’s interactions with his parents (Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke) and, surprisingly, Soren’s dad Alfred (David James Elliott). You see, Alfred is a pundit on a conservative cable news channel, which is part of why Soren isn’t comfortable coming out to him — and why you tense up when Tunde meets Alfred and they begin to have a genuine conversation.

Additionally, the relationships presented in the film feel lived-in. Tunde and Soren have some really lovely moments together at times when they can be intimate and be themselves around each other. And, while I could never understand how Marley and Tunde are best friends, his relationship with her has its special moments too.

L-R: Director Ali LeRoi, writer Stanley Kalu and producer Zachary Green on the AFF red carpet | Photo credit: Jackie Ruth

One of the most striking things about “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” is the way it reveals information little by little. It begins with the first couple of sentences of Tunde’s obituary, and you only see small pieces of his day the first time. But with each day more unfolds, in terms of character development and the obituary that begins it, feeding the audience bits and pieces about Tunde and his life before we must watch him die yet again. As LeRoi put it during the Q&A, “It’s a movie about a life, not a death.”

Another insight given during the Q&A session: There’s a through line in the movie relating to “The 400 Blows.” Of all the films you might connect this one to, a 1959 black-and-white, French New Wave drama is probably not on the list. But once you see that connection, it’s profound.

If you are able to stomach the subject matter of this film, I highly suggest that you see it. And if you feel in any way distanced from similar stories in the news (for example, if you’re white like I am), this is a must-see. It doesn’t solve any problems but it presents a story unlike any other recently, telling the story of a young, gay black boy who is educated and wealthy — and still cannot be saved. This film is unforgettable.

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