Reliving the trauma, relieving the trauma, releasing the trauma: on The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

by Heitor Augusto*Print

As a Black and gay spectator, watching The Obituary of Tunde Johnson poses a question from the very beginning: how will I react towards a film that so openly embraces reliving the trauma of police brutality in America? As a film critic and programmer, I surely try to respect the auteur’s voice and apprehend the singularity of each work that engages with the traumatic portion of being Black in (white) America.

However, I can’t ignore my subjectivity and how my own journey took me to the place where I’m at in the world right now and how I got here. Therefore, as a critical spectator, I feel it’s impossible to avoid asking, when dealing with representations of the trauma, how the gaze manifests itself and how a work of art engages with the idea of freedom and goes beyond reality as a construct, looking farther the world as we know it since we are, as Jota Mombaça puts it, the daughters of the end the world.

Ali LeRoi’s directorial debut works with Stanley Kalu’s screenplay. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is the story of a young Black man living in an upper-class Los Angeles milieu. He’s at a crossroad moment in his life: he’s gay, struggling with his sexuality and in love with a white kid who passes as straight and is reluctant to come out of the closet. Tunde decides to open up to his parents about his sexual orientation. However, there is a small detail: we already think we know, according to what is revealed through a voice-over, that in May 2020 he’s going to die at the hands of the L.A. police force.

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Despite his loving Nigerian parents, Tunde (played by Steven Silver) lives in a white cube, but his economic privilege does not impede the world from coming at him. He doesn’t have one single Black friend – though we see there’s a Black girl in his class – and is surrounded by heteronormativeness. The deeper issue with Tunde is not just the bodies surrounding him but the fact that his blackness and queerness can only exist within the confines of whiteness and heteronormativeness.

To whom is the film trying to communicate and share a gay and Black experience? That answer can always be found in the mise-en-scène, the filmic form and how one’s positionality is expressed through the aesthetics and formal choices. At a crucial point during one of the many traumatic encounters with the police, Tunde is choked by a white police officer. The event promptly resonates with the killing of Sterling Brown and the painful cry “I can’t breathe”.

In that chaotic environment, a crucial choice is made: the camera is placed on the cement floor, very close to Tunde’s face. He can’t breathe, we see. He’s dying right in front of our eyes. A young Black man like me, or like Trayvon, is dying and the director’s choice is to place the camera right in front of Tunde’s closing eyes. I’m forced to having his death – which is my own, our own – shoved inside of my eyes, my mind and my heart.

I won’t go as far as to bring Jacques Rivette’s idea of abject – through which he questioned Gilo Potencorvo’s moral compass in Kapò, particularly the moment when he opted for a traveling shot towards Emanuele Riva’s face in the very moment of her suicide as a freeing gesture from the Nazi concentration camp. However, I can’t ignore that a disturbing feeling arose while experiencing The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which is: a shot like that (and many others, I shall add) suggests that it was not intended for a person like me, a Black man from the Diaspora who’s past the point of recounting my struggle to white people.

He survived, he survived – at whose cost? At the cost of the other only Black person – a young woman – in Tunde’s class. So, should I celebrate?

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As a Black Brazilian, the United States and the narrative around American blackness have always been both enlightening and shadowing. Though I comprehend and respect Ali LeRoi’s intentions in making the film and Stanley Kalu’s motivations in writing that story, I can’t deny that such Black positionality has long stopped reverberating with my Black queerness. Therefore I’m quite happy to see what we have been doing in Brazil through films like Diego Paulino’s Negrum3 (Pitch Black), Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro’s Para todas as moças (To all the ladies), Bruno Ribeiro’s BR3 and many others. We’re no longer just talking about survival or struggle, or perceiving our blackness exclusively through the contrast with whiteness, but we’re imagining speculative Black futures.

The reason I will go only as far as calling the film’s choice problematic is that The Obituary of Tunde Johnson does have some things that interest me.

Steven Silver’s screen presence is very powerful. His body movement, his facial expressions, his voice tone and even the angles of his hands and heavily beringed fingers have an impact on me. His being in the world is emphasized by the selection of a perfect soundtrack, reflecting not only Tunde’s personality but establishing a certain mood and flow that moves constantly between the styles of cinema and music video – it couldn’t have been better than choosing J. Cole, Anderson Paak and Frank Ocean.

I also enjoy how much thought the creative minds behind the movie put into the representation of Tunde’s parents. We still live in a world where Black parenthood is portrayed as inherently dysfunctional, so the image of his embracing and warm parents not only is beautiful but has political meaning. The contrast with Tunde’s lover’s father, a white, conservative TV personality resembling Sean Hannity, is evident and clearly intentional.

And yet, moments like those in which the film truly communicates a Black American experience to Black spectatorship are rare. Both in the storyline and formal choices, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson seems unable to pass through the confines of whiteness. I definitely miss in Ali LeRoi’s film that energy I find in another contemporary coming-of-age work, Mychal Denzel Smith’s book Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

*Film seen during 2019 TIFF – Toronto International Film Festival.

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