Make time to watch Ali LeRoi's The Obituary of Tunde Johnson at Outfest (it is viewable there through August 30) not only to support Outfest, to support independent film and to support LGBTQ film, but because it is likely to be one of the finest films you see all year.
Written by Stanley Kalu when he was a 19-year-old film student at USC, the film — about a gay Nigerian-American high school student killed by white police — could not be more of the moment, yet it was finished over a year ago, proving that its theme of pervasive racial inequality in the U.S. is sadly evergreen.
In the film, Tunde (Steven Silver), an introspective young man seeking to please his well-to-do immigrant parents and to fit into a largely white social milieu in L.A., is caught in a poisonous love triangle that involves his longtime best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz), a popularette with a barely subdued streak of entitlement, and BMOC Soren (former teen bodybuilder and model Spencer Neville), who is also the son of a Hannity-style provocateur (David James Elliott). It is one secret too many for Tunde, who is relegated to exchanging knowing glances with Soren when they're at school, but who longs to come out to everyone, especially his parents.
TOOTJ does not begin auspiciously; in truth, there are some clichés the director seems to try on and shrug off, noticeably an entrance for Marley straight out of Jawbreaker, Mean Girls and all the rest. But in a way, this sets the film up as a mundane day in the life, and helps make Tunde's shocking death during an anything-but-routine traffic stop all the more shocking.
After being killed — ironically, while reaching for a call from his selfish boyfriend — Tunde ... wakes up. Groundhog Day-style, he repeats the day's events, this time in a fog, wondering if the prescription drugs for his depression are to blame for the hyper-real illusion of his murder. Instead, things wind up the same, with yet another harrowing death by cop.
At this point, Tunde begins to grasp what is happening, and attempts to take control, trying out different words, different interactions, anything to steer his narrative away from murder. His terror echoes the constant fear Black people have of the police. The dread of becoming a statistic is, here, seemingly a literal inevitability. The use of music to this end is also remarkable.
Tunde's existence jibes with his parents' belief, brought from Nigeria, that death is not an end, but that the lives of ancestors are lived beyond life's membrane. It lends TOOTJ a supernatural aura, and heightens the suspense of whether Tunde, who in spite of his struggle to find and be himself is so smart, so creative, so motivated, will figure out a way to escape being the star of another sad obituary involving police and an unarmed Black man.
And he has to try to do that by navigating the deep flaws of his white, fair-weather friends.
Silver's performance is so layered and masterful, such a breakthrough, that it eclipses the work of the other actors, who are nonetheless universally fine. His work, like that of the director and screenwriter (whose work won The Launch), feels like an audacious burst of new talent, like witnessing the start of something bigger than one movie.
Don't miss it.