The Obituary of Tunde Johnson – BFI Flare 2021 – Film Review

‘Choose love or choose life’ are the emotionally challenging decisions facing Tunde in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson. The title itself forewarns of Tunde’s demise and sombre topics but the unexpected layers of tenderness permeating the film result in a powerful, emotional journey through Tunde’s life and racial politics in the US. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is that grippingly raw insight, within a coming of age LGBTQ narrative, into the underlying tensions that may be faced by black teenagers. This is particularly poignant given the recent one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 at the hands of police officers.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson depicts the angst ridden moments of an affluent homosexual teenager deciding to come out to his parents. However, Tunde’s celebratory event is mired by deeper complexities surrounding race and a love triangle. Remarkably, Tunde’s Nigerian parents seemed accepting of his status as LGBTQ which is a refreshing perspective, but perhaps unrealistic, rather than the toxic dynamics from certain cultural backgrounds concerning the LGBT community. It is a short-lived moment as the film’s title and narration always prepares the audience for the tragedy to befall Tunde.

Steven Silver as Tunde in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson
Steven Silver as Tunde in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

Still very shocking, the extent of Tunde’s demise is revealed in an instance of police brutality. Given that this film was made in 2019, it seems prescient and this stirs up a sense of frustration at the lack of progression alongside the continuous use of racial profiling by some police authorities. Director Ali LeRoi ensures that such moment is tenderly captured, rather than being gratuitously violent, with careful edits crafting a powerfully tense situation for Tunde. The close up on Tunde certainly tugs at the heart strings whilst witnessing the curtailment of his life. Uniquely, such incident triggers a time loop reminiscent of films such as Run Lola Run and invoking the Yoruba belief of re-incarnation.

It is an effective device enabling LeRoi to express several themes across Tunde’s different chances to achieve a successful outcome, hopefully. The repetitive nature of the time loops is very well executed as it mirrors that repetitive cycle of terror within some black people’s interaction with police forces.

Offering greater depth for a coming-of-age film, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson highlights that some of our decisions may have direct consequences for others in our lives. Tunde’s insistence that his love interest, Soren, comes out to his father is problematic as Soren is the stereotypical high school ‘jock’ with the model girlfriend, who is Tunde’s best friend, Marley. The film unearths the insidious daily interactions for Tunde but beyond the fragments seen within the time loops there are no other character insights. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson does, however, spotlight Steven Silver as Tunde who delivers a tremendously expressive performance when contemplating the seemingly impossible conundrum presented to him.

Tunde and Soren in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson
Tunde and Soren in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a feature directorial debut that packs a punch. There are many topical themes sensitively tackled within a critical lens illustrating the difficulties arising for under-represented communities combined with inter-sectionality. To be black and a part of the LGBTQ community is wrought with anxiety and the film shines a light on the mis-treatment that society levels towards such individuals.  LeRoi, whilst subtly unveiling these issues, ensures that a resounding impact is felt and none more so than the moment where Tunde utters the words, ‘I can’t breathe.’ These were the last words mentioned by Eric Garner in 2014 during his suffocation by police officers. As such, it is a powerfully tense moment and signals LeRoi’s commitment to the script by delving into current issues and providing that social commentary.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is an evocative and affecting coming of age LGBTQ love story within the context of intersectionality. The film may prove to be an uncomfortable watch as it confronts the nexus between police brutality, prejudice and the fear experienced by many black people that step outside of the societal constructs placed upon them. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is compelling from start to finish and provides a fresh approach to the time loop genre questioning the life choices that we make.



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