While not in control of the response, Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver) does control the conversation when deciding to come out as gay to his wealthy, Nigerian-born parents the night of his secret boyfriend’s (Spencer Neville’s Soren) birthday. He sits them down, diverts their attention from the busy intellectual discourse that runs through their heads, and says his peace. He fends off his mother’s desire to hold him (a source of physical affection he’s been trying to get her to stop) and implores his father to end the silent stare into the distance he’s adopted since the words were spoken. It becomes a weight off Tunde’s shoulders internally to have his truth heard and externally to see they won’t waver in their support. But it won’t prevent his death.
It is a start, though. That feeling of euphoria and freedom when Tunde hops into his SUV to drive to Soren’s already started soirée is something we have to imagine he hasn’t felt in years. He’s ready to conquer the world, tell his classmates who he is, and survive because it’s the twenty-first century and his boyfriend is ready to do the same despite dealing with the toxically masculine stigma of being the star lacrosse player. That’s when his phone rings to hear a girl in Soren’s ear. That’s when the police lights flash and he pulls over to get berated by on-edge cops despite Tunde putting his hands on the wheel and asking the officers permission before doing something as simple as retrieve his registration.
That the altercation ends in gunshots anyway shouldn’t surprise you. That Tunde wakes up in his bed upon dying should. The logical question to ask as a result is whether or not writer Stanley Kalu (who scripted this tale as a teenager) and director Ali LeRoi (who was on the panel of judges that graded it amongst other finalists before advocating for its production) introduce this time loop so that their protagonist can relive the moment again and again in order to find an avenue that keeps him breathing. It’s logical because that’s how most, if not all, time loop narratives operate. They’re about second chances, righting wrongs, becoming better people, or ensuring others become better too. It’s also a flawed question since Tunde did nothing wrong.
I’ve seen people talking about The Obituary of Tunde Johnson in context with its predecessors Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow. They try comparing them without realizing how different they are in intent and execution. I saw someone question the purpose of using a time loop when Tunde never uses it to fix what went wrong. They called him passive towards his fate and did so as though that truth was a flaw. I wanted to flippantly reply, “You’re so close to getting it,” but relented because I’m not sure they would. I don’t think they’d comprehend that it’s not passivity. It’s not a refusal to advocate. It’s evidence that nothing he does will actually change the prejudice in the hearts of those destined to take his life.
Is this therefore a time loop at all? It might be some unexplained science-fiction device. It might be a series of dreams layered atop each other. Or it might even be a hallucination brought on by the use and withdrawal of benzodiazepines. Even if it’s a combination of all three possibilities, labeling the film with any one inherently negates the fact that it could also simply be a manifestation of what Black and LGBTQ teens face each and every day of their lives. They can live the same day an infinite number of times and do an infinite number of things differently without ever changing the end result. They’ll still be marginalized. They’ll still get betrayed. Their daily struggles repeat regardless of narrative convenience. This is their reality.
So Kalu and LeRoi not adhering to time loop convention becomes a powerfully conscious choice rather than a mistake. They’re asking their audience to confront the futility and pain inherent to Tunde’s experience and the hard truth that accepting himself won’t be enough when those communities are at odds with themselves let alone the affluent white neighborhood in which he resides and the systemically racist nation to which it is contained. That euphoria felt after talking to his parents won’t remain if he later escapes the policemen who previously pulled him over only to realize how too many people only “accept” when it suits them. Even though Soren and Tunde’s best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz) love him for who he is doesn’t mean they don’t love themselves more.
What will Tunde find upon making it to Soren’s party? Will it be a happy ending or another opportunity to be profiled, abused, and murdered? He’s still Black in a neighborhood that sees him as an “other.” He’s still gay amongst high schoolers placing greater importance on keeping appearances in their hometown and for their conservative talk show host parents (of which Soren’s dad, as played by David James Elliott, is one). Avoid one potentially fatal encounter and invite the next. Try to accelerate the timeline of speaking your truth and watch cold feet replace warm hearts. Maybe this cycle isn’t therefore about surviving a bullet. Maybe it’s about tearing down the plastic curtain of fake people who never cared as much about you as you did them.
It’s what Tunde talks about with his therapist and what haunts him enough to get hooked on Xanax. What purpose does the present hold when college provides an escape hatch with the ability to find a place more welcoming to who he is than the one he was forced to adhere to during adolescence? That’s not to say he’s been perfect by any means. He has secrets beyond his sexuality and his desire to come clean about them now is as selfish as his decision to keep them hidden in the first place. He’s trying, though. He wants to break the loop that his fears and society’s terror constructed without any need for sci-fi gimmicks. Tunde must kill his former self so that he might finally be reborn.
That means running through the gamut of violent acts policemen have committed upon Black people. It means pushing teens to the brink of their tolerance and emotional complexity. So it only makes sense that the film’s progression has been stewarded by a young Black man speaking of the experience of today’s youth and an older Black man who has watched what this country has done to marginalized communities for decades. Add gorgeous production value, a resonant soundtrack, and phenomenal performances and you get a finished piece that’s perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist. It may use broad strokes at times, but it never loses its purpose to illuminate our double standards or naiveté towards them. Change really does start with something as simple as Tunde’s request to be heard.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is playing as part of the online film festival Nightstream.