A slowly developing narrative line has snaked its way through my festival screenings thus far. From Waves, the powerful All-American tragedy focused on the travails of a determined and seemingly successful African American family, which currently is my second favorite film of the festival (behind the resurgent Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life), to Just Mercy, Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s book, which explores the notion of justice and redemption in the American Justice system, there’s an experience of racism, an unnecessary reminder for black men in particular that the past is not long-buried prologue or curious historical footnote. It is the here and now.
But what about the future?
I caught a glimpse, a frustrating and unsettling vision of how racism and homophobia create the kind of loop that’s impossible to escape. What’s worse, it lacks the power of a horrific nightmare because it is just another day.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson follows in a long line of Groundhog’s Day-inspired riffs on the potentially endless repetition of a day where a protagonist has to either learn some grand life lesson (Before I Fall) or solve their own murder (Happy Death Day and its hyper-charged sequel). This genre is on the verge of overtaking the Freaky Friday body swapping trope as the new Hollywood go-to. It can be played for romance (the Netflix original movie When We First Met) or action (Edge of Tomorrow).
A standard element of the genre is an unlikeable figure at the center. A jerk, a mean girl, or in the case of Edge of Tomorrow, a cowardly Tom Cruise becomes our point of reference; hardly the kind of person we want to identify with, but we wait, knowing that redemption is on the horizon. They will be transformed and saved through the reliving of these trying moments, facing the immediacy of their inevitable ends, which will grant them a stay of execution by the end (?) of the film.
So, when we meet Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver) in director Ali LeRoi’s feature film debut, we are introduced to this handsome Nigerian-American teenager of means, granted information about his birth, his parents and their backgrounds, and then promptly informed when he will meet his end. And so we sit and watch, waiting for the moment to arrive. During his last day, we watch him interact with his upscale parents (Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke), friends at school, come out to his parents later that evening, and finally leave for a party that he will never reach. Along the way, Tunde will be stopped by police officers and shot dead.
When he wakes up, as if from a dream, Tunde reacts as if it were just that, a dream. One that young black men are all-too familiar with, either from the news or trained to avoid by their parents. It’s the same day, replayed from a slightly different reference point, and Tunde doesn’t make the connection that he’s reliving it all over again, even though he makes very similar moves and decisions. For the audience, the replay grants us access to more information than we had the first time around.
And so it goes…again and again, but each time the choices lead to divergences that trigger a sense of deja vu in Tunde, but still not quite enough of a feeling that he’s experiencing a Groundhog’s Day repeat.
I suppose the question here is why should it?
As a student at an exclusive private school, Tunde takes a film class (meaning he should be familiar with the tropes of the genre), but first and foremost, he’s a young black man and likely not ready or willing to believe that he might be a character in this kind of story. We don’t have that privilege.
And what would be the point? What lesson is there for Tunde to learn? He’s dying, despite his access to an education and material possessions, like any other black man, young or old, getting shot or choked, at the moment when it would seem that his life is about to take off.
We watch Tunde announce his sexuality to his parents and receive unconditional love and support from them. We see him share private moments of intimacy with his high school love. And we watch him die.
It is, in some ways, like the news coverage of the footage of Eric Garner’s strangulation, replayed when the situation first broke. Over and over, we watched as the anchors attempted to point out new elements – a shouted word from the other officers, a gesture from Garner – while experts and analysts popped up to chime in on the endless loop.
That’s the startling thing about The Obituary of Tunde Johnson. The film subverts the genre, but it does so, not by juicing or jazzing it up with stylistic flourishes. Instead this is real life infusing the fictional proceedings with a sadness that might be crushing for those not intimately aware of what it feels like to live this life every day.