by Nathan Osborne
A bold and bracing effort, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson tackles race, homosexuality and a time loop in this timely but messy debut from Ali LeRoi.
The titular Tunde Johnson is a tragic victim of police brutality, but immediately awakens after death to find himself trapped in a terrifying time loop that forces him to confront painful home truths. Serving as the first feature outing for both writer Stanley Kalu and director Ali LeRoi, what the pair lack in experience they attempt to make up for with a clear passion in the hope of overcoming the shortfalls of their overly ambitious premise.
Telling a queer coming-out tale alongside a biting exploration of race and brutality, Obituary’s screenplay has an awful lot on its mind. The individual elements make for compelling viewing and it uses the Groundhog Day conceit effectively, emphasising the circular nature of police brutality and the devastating news cycle that never seems to relents. Alongside this, Tunde’s sexuality is explored with a sensitivity that enriches the film’s conversations considerably.
And yet, the screenplay flits between these narrative strands with little control, becoming blurry in its focus and losing both breathing space and the ability to develop either element completely organically. With some ropey dialogue in places too, it limits the film’s rhythm and overall success.
With some strong direction, particularly for the painful sequences of brutality, LeRoi announces himself as a bold director. The most harrowing moments are executed with finesse and maturity and demonstrate a fearless voice coming on to the directing stage. Even here though, he isn’t quite able to streamline the myriad of ideas and tones overwhelming the piece.
Delivering a solid dramatic lead turn, Steven Silver excels in the titular role. A great deal of the film’s weight rests on him and he shoulders the responsibility fantastically, conveying the complexity of the character with nuance and poise. If anything, Silver is in the strongest at grounding the drama as the narrative darts around. Many of the supporting cast are not up to his level unfortunately, with some very amateur performances – thankfully, they never hold Silver back and he demonstrates real skill in leading the charge.
Biting off more than it can true, the lack of filmmaking experience prevents The Obituary of Tunde Johnson from reaching its potential, lacking a steady hand that could iron out the screenplay’s creases and cultivate its focus. But perhaps the most important takeaway from Tunde Johnson is that both creators announce themselves as exciting news talents with their fingers on the social pulse, taking the type of audacious swing that is far more exciting than a film that plays it safe. Alongside a strong lead performance, it’s more than a worthwhile watch in spite of its flaws.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is still a little rough around the edges but this is the birth of an array of talents who will go on to take the industry by storm.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is playing as part of BFI Flare Film Festival