Festivals

{BFI Flare} The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

With The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the audience enters one of the most terrifying time-loop scenarios to be possibly stuck in: the hours preceding a brutal, racially-motivated murder in LA.

Director Ali LeRoi follows protagonist Tunde (13 Reasons Why actor Steven Silver), a Nigerian-American, gay teenager struggling with his mental health, identity, and addiction. Tunde tries to be himself around his wealthy, accepting parents, vapid friends, and closeted boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville). But the protagonist’s life is abruptly cut short when he gets pulled over by two police officers. 

You don’t need a vivid imagination to know where this is going; the movie doesn’t want you to guess either. The Obituary states very early on, and with great clarity, who’s responsible for yet another dead Black man in police custody. It says it once, and then it says it again and louder for those in the back. The Police are going to shoot and kill Tunde, over and over.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson Exists At The Intersection Of Race And Sexuality

Screened at this year’s BFI Flare, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson exists at the intersection of race, sexuality, and class in an America where 1,465 Black people died at the hands of police between 2015 and 2019.

Written by Stanley Kalu, The Obituary comes at a moment where trust in police and institutions has been plummeting worldwide. The streak of racially-motivated police brutality incidents is hardly news. Yet the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 have brought greater attention to the issue. White silence is no longer an option, and The Obituary of Tunde Johnson reiterates this by having the audience confront an uncomfortable reality, repeatedly.

The time-loop narrative works really well in this instance, despite a slow final act that risks weakening the whole structure.

As is the case with other examples in the genre, viewers know far too well what is about to happen. Death is the only event that can reboot the temporal dimension. The genre toys with this assumption, turning death into a comedic device for the audience’s benefit. This can take the form of montages where time-loop dwellers come up with increasingly bizarre ways to kick the bucket. A real staple in the genre, from Groundhog Day to Happy Death Day.

Time-Loop Genre Rules Don’t Apply Here

The Obituary, however, isn’t just any time-loop movie. First off, knowing you’re about to witness yet another police shooting doesn’t defuse the tension. If anything, it amps this anxiety-inducing mix of terror and outrage to the max. Just like real-life police brutality, the latest incident is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I might posit , the power of reiteration could be the reason. The reoccurrence of these events together with the trivialization of gendered violence, makes exploring why Floyd’s death prompted international outrage while the murder of Breonna Taylor only two months prior, caused far less clamor. The movie by LeRoi exploits frequency, never asking his protagonist to find a way out of the loop.

And here comes the second, and perhaps most important, difference with other examples of the genre. Tunde hasn’t inadvertently entered a loop and as a result doesn’t need to learn quantum physics to get out. It is not puzzle to figure out. Nor does he need to unmask a killer or redeem himself for his poor behavior. The other films’ motives don’t apply here. The protagonist carries the collective trauma of the Black experience on his shoulders. And police brutality is a plague he can’t single-handedly put an end to. 

When Tunde seemingly does escape the time loop in the finale, it’s out of sheer luck. He’s a young Black man from a rich, upper-class family — a potentially damaging character study, perpetuating the dichotomy between “the good ones” and the image of Black people and immigrants as criminals — but he isn’t shielded from systemic racism. He “survives” another day and stares into the camera, looking at the audience who is no longer just watching but is called upon by the movie to speak up.