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article imageReview: TIFF 2019: ‘The Obituary of Tunde Johnson’ is a unique commentary Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 13, 2019 in Entertainment
‘The Obituary of Tunde Johnson’ is a powerful exploration of the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of American police officers.
While film is a prominent form of entertainment and a means to escape the troubles of everyday life, it’s also a powerful medium to comment on political and social issues. Many of the most successful message-driven movies are popular because they’ve found the right combination of compelling and meaningful. Underestimating an audience’s intelligence often causes filmmakers to hit them over the head with the picture’s significance, which usually has the opposite effect. Instead, weaving the commentary into the narrative and letting the viewer get there on their own is a far more effective approach to making a point. In The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the message is clear, but the presentation is exceptional.
Tunde (Steven Silver) goes to a private high school in a nice neighbourhood. He was born in Nigeria, but hasn’t had any trouble fitting in with his classmates. He is thought to be a smart young man with a bright future. His best friend since grade school is Marley (Nicola Peltz), who has the hots for the star of the lacrosse team, Soren (Spencer Neville), who also happens to be Tunde’s secret lover. It’s Soren’s birthday so everyone is going to his house for a massive party thrown, but not attended, by his TV personality and otherwise absent father (David James Elliott). But Tunde has a secret that could have devastating consequences on his relationships, if he ever lives long enough to experience the aftermath.
This is one of the best uses of a time loop narrative ever concocted. Like many of its counterparts, the day is restarted each time the protagonist dies. The twist in this instance is each time Tunde is killed, it’s at the hands of police officers. What at first seems like a nightmarish premonition gradually turns into an exposé of the numerous ways a young, unarmed black man can be murdered by authorities. In spite of Tunde changing elements of each day, he is nonetheless confronted by police and subsequently killed without cause. Sometimes he’s alone, other times he’s with friends; sometimes he’s driving, other times he’s walking or just hanging out. What is consistent is the police’s reaction to his existence.
Another key element of the narrative is Tunde never changes who he is in spite of his repeated experiences. In fact, in some ways, he becomes more confident with who he is, which has a greater significance in the larger context of Tunde’s life and sexual identity. But he doesn’t change the way he dresses, avoid driving his family’s luxury cars or doing whatever else he’d normally do — because none of those things are harmful or illegal.
Nothing is all good or all bad, so in addition to these horrific scenes of violence, the film is a snapshot of adolescence. From first love to heartbreak, best friends forever or best worst enemy, life is a rollercoaster of emotions. However, the secrets they keep from each other make everything more difficult. Each day presents another opportunity to take a different approach and numerous chances to make the right or wrong choice. The impact of Tunde’s multiple deaths are a heavy burden on him and the audience, though viewers have the safety net of knowing he’ll jolt awake again shortly after his heart stops for the umpteenth time.
This is a movie that everyone should see as it presents a critical issue in a manner that’s palatable and relatable. Silver is an excellent lead, taking audiences on this journey in which Tunde is pushed to define what he wants from life regardless of what anyone else tries to impose upon him.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson had its world premiere in the Discovery category at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2019 coverage.
Director: Ali LeRoi
Starring: Steven Silver, Spencer Neville and Nicola Peltz
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