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The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

Content warning: police brutality

Note: this essay contains spoilers

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (2019), directed by Ali LeRoi and written by Stanley Kalu, is a story about a gay upper-class Nigerian-American teenager that is forced to relive the day that he is murdered by the police for simply being black in the United States. Kalu wrote the script while a student at the University of Southern California, and became the first winner of The Launch, which awarded a production budget for the top prize. The film went on to be nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in 2022.

Like other time loop stories before it, the titular character [Steven Silver] descends into despair and nihilism as he questions why he is in this conundrum. The time loop is a device that forces the protagonist to overcome an internal struggle in order to move on with their lives; it's a sub-genre where the protagonist and antagonist are one in the same. Police brutality is not the only force to overcome in this film. Instead, it serves as an unfortunate catalyst to restart his time loop. Tunde's struggle is centered on his dissociated identity. Only by stitching himself together and finding his identity can he defeat his time loop.

We're introduced to Tunde wearing his signature red headphones, reminiscent of the hoodie of the late Trayvon Martin, who was murdered on February 26, 2012. Tunde continues to wear these headphones throughout most of the film, allowing him to disassociate from the world around him at a moment's notice. We also learn that Tunde abuses his Xanax prescription (which is itself a dissociative drug) by taking enough pills to hallucinate. Before the time loop begins, it's clear that Tunde is already living in another plane of existence, where he acts as a passive observer. This is all against the backdrop of a Nigerian art piece in the Johnson's living room, depicting a fractured man. As Tunde and his parents [Sammi Rotini and Tempi Locke] observe the piece, his mom recalls a poem that sums up its meaning: "I will no longer die. I have become 200 hills rolled into one. I am immovable. Death is but a transition from this life to the next." This poem becomes the key to defeating his time loop. He needs to become 200 hills rolled into one.

Each time Tunde is slain by the police, he wakes up to relive the day in which he and Soren make a pact to come out to their parents, only for Tunde to get killed again. Each scene in which he wakes up is accompanied by a voiceover of Tunde's obituary. Obituaries are perhaps the only medium meant to succinctly describe a person's life, identify, and relationships all within a few paragraphs. We've probably all read obituaries that felt devoid as if a stranger wrote it. Tunde's obituary throughout most of the film is similarly devoid and focuses on the relationships around him (e.g. his family members and his best friend). We learn that the origin of the voiceover is actually Tunde. He hardly even knows himself.

While this is a story about black queer trauma, the trauma is not centered on the act of coming out to one's parents. Tunde's parents actually welcome his new identity openly and warmly each time he comes out to them. Instead, the trauma centers on queer dissociation that results from living a closeted life. Tunde, like many closeted queer people, escapes his internal struggle by acting as a caretaker for those around him, thereby losing his own identity. He puts up with bullying from Soren's friends because he wants to protect Soren, who is a closeted popular jock. He willingly acts as Soren's secret side-piece in order to protect his best friend, Marley, who is also dating Soren. Even when he sees the vicious side of Marley, he does all he can to protect her feelings. Despite cinema being Tunde's passion, he is even sheepish and apologetic when he presents in his film theory class. Tunde lives his life apologizing for who he is and hides himself to protect everyone around him.

The time loop in this story, like in many other time loop stories (Groundhog Day, The Final Girls, Happy Death Day, etc), serves as psychological and metaphysical intervention that gives its protagonist an eternity to fix what is broken. Despite the repeated traumas he relives every day, Tunde's time loop gives him the freedom to experiment safely with the relationships around him, thereby gaining agency and stitching together the different aspects of his identity. He's a son, a Nigerian-American, a friend, a sexual being, a gay man, a victim, a survivor, an aspiring filmmaker, and so on. He becomes 200 hills rolled into one.

Like so many out queer people, Tunde realizes he needs to put himself first, even when it means letting go of relationships that repress or fragment his identity. He finally lets go of Soren, who cannot hold up his end of the bargain to come out to his dad. In doing so, Tunde's fractured and dissociated selves come together. This is reinforced with an obituary that finally centers Tunde. While this film ends with a satisfyingly inspiring note, as a queer man, I can't help but wonder if he'll forever battle the scars of queer dissociation and the challenges of loving and caring for oneself.

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is available for streaming on Hulu.


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