Tunde Johnson is shot dead by the police one night. He’s a young black man driving to his closeted boyfriend’s birthday party when he is unjustifiably pulled over traffic police who murder him out of an irrational fear of Black People. It’s a tragically common tale, but uncommonly he immediately wakes up in his bed, seemingly transported back to the morning of the day of his death. Reliving the same events and encounters again and again, he tries to outrun a fate that seems unavoidable.
The repetition at the heart of the film feels particularly cruel. Escape is teased and suggested, but the horror of police brutality and the trauma that the entire community experiences as a result is not something that can be outrun. We see different perspectives on Tunde’s life throughout the film, the complicated hopes, wishes and actions that are entirely his, all snatched away and snuffed out for no reason.
The film does not portray an overly romantic impression of Tunde’s life. It’s a very rich impression of a life in turmoil. Tunde is stuck in a cycle of shame and anxiety. He’s forced into the shadows by the attitudes of others. He can’t live the life he wants as a gay man or a black man. He considers himself “twice removed” from humanity in the world’s eyes. Steven Silver is astonishing in the lead role as a man on edge and being pushed over by those he loves and those sworn to protect him.
The portrayal of the police is effectively frightening. They are menacing figures who always use light to threaten and intimidate. If the shadows are where Tunde feels safe, it’s invasive flashlights that pull him out and expose him. Tunde can be killed without consequence and he knows it. He knows the value the society he lives in places on his life.
Stylistically the film effortlessly moves from gritty drama to flamboyant genre piece. There are glossy teen movie sequences, mingling with experimental dream sequences. It’s a self aware film that occasionally uses the somewhat hackneyed convention of utilising an in-universe film class to explore the themes of the story. It’s a shame as the film otherwise has an entirely uncondescending method of explaining itself and it’s premise.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a nightmare. It’s about all the fears of a young black gay man coalescing into a landscape of helplessness and paranoia. It’s a deeply introspective horror film. The fantastical premise exposes very real anxieties about oppression and . It’s an excellent thriller and a bold journey into the psyche of a fractured American Youth.