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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Obituary of Tunde Johnson’

Love, not fate, concerns a gay, black teen trapped in a time loop of being murdered by the police

Director:
Ali LeRoi
With:
Steven Silver, Spencer Neville, Nicola Peltz

Running time: 104 MIN.

Eighteen-year-old Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver) isn’t consciously able to explain why he wakes up gasping every day. Every day is the same day, May 28, and every night, he’s murdered by the cops and “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” is read anew: an upper-middle class, gay high schooler destined to be shot by jumpy officers who don’t know him at all. The interesting crinkle in Ali LeRoi’s coiling drama is that Tunde isn’t one of those time-loopers who tries to change his future. He can’t avoid being young and black in America; the problem isn’t his to fix. (Besides, notes LeRoi, the first time he dies, he does everything perfectly, placing both hands visibly on the wheel as though he’s been expecting danger his whole life.)

Instead, LeRoi (who created the TV series “Everybody Hates Chris”) and screenwriter Stanley Kalu chooses to wipe the majority of his memories, freeing Tunde to spend this slick, chillwave-injected film embracing life instead of dodging death. But death is coming from someone’s nervous trigger fingers and not always those initial vocally racist cops who assume that a rich kid with an expensive watch must rap. The cumulative assassinations begin to ache like a mysterious bruise, making the audience feel the psychic weight of living in fear. Yet, the style of the film is more teen soap opera than vérité miserablism.

To Tunde, race isn’t the pressing issue. Rather, he’s fixated on how to let his best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz) know they’re both sleeping with the class lacrosse hunk Soren O’Connell (Spencer Neville), perhaps the whitest character name ever put onscreen. As an ode to potential, “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” would be more stirring if life as Tunde knows it wasn’t a rich kid prep school stocked with over-glossed lips and personal trainer-calibrated obliques. This isn’t life as anyone knows it, unless they too went to class wearing a fur coat and no backpack.

In the film’s opening scene, Tunde comes out to his parents Ade and Yomi (Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke). As artist Ade absorbs the news, cinematographer Steven Holleran focuses so sharply on his face that Tunde becomes a blur — LeRoi’s nudge that the dad must learn to see his son clearly for the first time. “With unconditional love comes unconditional fear,” he finally says, one of several clanging omens in the script. Sighs Ade on how he’ll paint his take on black masculinity: “I keep seeing red.” The subsequent times Tunde comes out again, and again, to his folks, and to Marley, and even to Soren’s conservative newscaster father Alfred (David James Elliot) aren’t easier. They’re just different — small shifts in Tunde’s day that would reverberate through his adulthood, if he’d survive to experience it.

Kalu’s script gives these moments weight that teeters on dramatic irony; the audience is the only one who will remember these hugs and tears. The love triangle is hyped-up melodrama. Yet, Kalu and LeRoi defend Tunde’s right to care more about his love life than racism. Every statistic was once human, they insist, and humans are allowed to pop Xanax, break hearts, smoke weed and dream of studying film after graduation without it ever crossing their mind that they’re about to die. What’s most interesting about Tunde’s wealthy clique is how his friends’ white privilege occasionally gets him killed. Soren is causing the disturbance, but the guns aren’t pointing at him — he hasn’t learned, as Tunde and we have, to be afraid.

Silver’s occasional self-consciousness feels like a boy figuring out his own personality, which is arguably what Tunde is doing. For every flat moment, he takes a fun risk like swooping up the hem of his long, black hooded cardigan and pretending to be a bat. In another playful bit, he welcomes Soren to their hooky love nest hideaway by cooing that he was “Just waitin’ for my huzzz-band to return from war.” Nicola Peltz has an electric energy as the mean girl who chews out her friends for buying her fattening chocolates, yet is legitimately hurt to suspect Soren is faking his lust. In a movie designed around predictability, Neville’s feckless jock is impossible to pin down. He’s a swoony lover in one scene, a rat in the next, and though his scenes with Silver have an erotic charge, it’s hard to imagine them liking each other as people.

Their personality mismatch is the same glitch that runs through the entire film: The big emotions are more believable than the details. Occasionally, “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” warns that another one of the boy’s black classmates might take his fate if he accidentally misses it. Yet when her face shows up on the TV screen, he doesn’t seem to recognize her at all, even though we remember seeing the girl in his cinema class rhapsodizing about Oscar Micheaux. Perhaps he’s blind to her life. Still, it’s good to be introduced to his.

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Toronto Film Review: 'The Obituary of Tunde Johnson'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 5, 2019. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: A Marginal Media, The Launch Prods. presentation of a Zgreen Entertainment, Jason Shuman Prods. production. (Int'l sales: Paradigm.) Producers: Zachary Green, Jason Shuman, Marni Bond, Chuck Bond. Executive producers: Eduardo Cisneros, Dr. Madeleine Sherak, Roya Rastegar, Sanjay Sharma.

Crew: Director: Ali LeRoi. Screenplay: Stanley Kalu. Camera: Steven Holleran. Editor: Shannon Baker Davis. Music: Darryl Jones.

With: Steven Silver, Spencer Neville, Nicola Peltz, Sammi Rotibi, Tembi Locke.

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