Ever since its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson has become increasingly relevant to our current social climate. Its story – a Black teen forced to repeatedly relive a fatal police attack – parallels the horrors underpinning the Black Lives Matter movement, with an inspired storytelling approach. As the film plays this year’s New York LGBTQ Film Festival , we spoke with The Obituary of Tunde Johnson director Ali LeRoi and writer Stanley Kalu about the inspirations behind its rich and relevant themes. Below is an edited transcript of that discussion.
Shane Slater: The Obituary of Tunde Johnson has recently played Nightstream – a horror film festival – as well as various LGBT film festivals. Where did the ideas come from to explore this range of themes?
Stanley Kalu: I lived the majority of my life as a majority. I lived all over Africa my entire life. And I also went to international schools, which is kind of a space of racial utopia. It’s about the closest you can get because you are in this space where all races, all creeds, all colors, all cultural perspectives are equal. You’re shown them, you’re interacting with them. When I came to America for school, I was stripped of a sense of individuality and became a monolithic Black man, which in itself is a horror element. And it was extremely difficult for me to navigate and understand the nature of cyclical violence against Black bodies in this country, which is again a horror element. From there, I wrote The Obituary of Tunde Johnson when I was 19, in my sophomore year of the USC Screenwriting program.
In a deeper sense, I understand that for this to work, to speak the volumes I needed it to speak, I wanted to render something truly intersectional. So not only is Tunde an immigrant, not only is Tunde queer. He’s also Black. So focusing on how violence against “otherness” and identity occurs in this country. That’s where it comes from.
SS: You’ve had a successful career primarily in the comedy space and now you’ve moved into heavy drama for your first feature film. What made you decide to make that switch?
Ali LeRoi: I’m a 50-something year old Black man in America! Everything that Stanley has talked about in this material in some ways, are things that I’ve been living with all of my life. Especially my post-adolescent life, with a great degree of clarity. Comedy was a space for me where you go to make light of social ills, injustices, hypocrisy, extremism. But at a point, and that point is now for me, some of those things are things I don’t necessarily care to make people laugh about. It’s not a turn to something serious, it’s just taking the jokes out of the way in dealing with it. Comedy is a way to try to let it go down a little bit easier. But sometimes jokes don’t work, sometimes you need flames.
SS: There’s a therapy scene where Tunde says that he should be happier, considering the privileges of his life. This reminded me of your earlier work on Survivor’s Remorse in terms of Black characters who are acutely aware of their class within the Black community. Can you tell me more about what fascinates you about these characters?
AL: I want to hand that over to Stanley, because his way of approaching this material is very unique. In terms of the writing, I think I was beneficial to him in helping to shape and hone some of the pointedness of the material. But the perspectives that the material came from were wholly from Stanley.
SK: The narrative around how people of color die and mental health in the Black community, are all tied around income at the end of the day. There’s an excuse that Black people within lower income communities are more likely to perish. Which may be true, but wealth doesn’t defend you from the physical act of brutality. And it doesn’t defend you from actually feeling the weight of that brutality on you.
When I was considering how to craft this character, I kept thinking about the emotional violence of being a Black person in a White space. And being misunderstood and the mental health aspects that come out of that. Just because you have things does not necessitate joy, self-confidence or self-esteem. In fact, as one rises in a socioeconomic space as a person of color, you do find yourself more isolated. You do find yourself more alone. And more often than not, you find yourself really sad because of that. You feel can’t relate to either side. It’s a stranger form of “otherness” that I was really interested in.
AL: Stanley’s experience of growing up in a fairly stable environment as a child, the things he’s discussing, are things that I’ve experienced on the other side. I grew up poor in Chicago and didn’t get a certain type of access or material wealth until much later in my life. So the same ideas about the dangers of being young and impoverished and then how that migrates into isolation and a different sort of otherness, it becomes a practical peril versus an abstract peril. But they don’t go away.
SS: Unfortunately, the death scenes remind us of what is really happening in America. Considering how the footage we’ve seen has been used for and against the police, how did that impact your decisions in writing and visualizing those scenes?
AL: The idea to mirror what we’ve already seen and experienced was something that Stanley and I discussed. Ultimately, I personally felt that it was a way to not let the viewer be lost in the fantasy of what this movie is. Everything you’re watching is pretty much something that happened to someone. You might not know it at the top of your consciousness, but it rings a bell. It’s actually like a real horror show. It’s unfortunate that we could find plenty of instances to choose from. We had to decide which ones were the ones that best suited the way that the story was being told, so that they didn’t get in the way but brought a sense of connection to what’s happening in the real world.
SS: The film feels made for an audience, to spark conversation. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect that collective viewing and the expected rollout and engagement with the film?
AL: We don’t have big stars in it. It’s hot-button subject matter. There’s been a conversation floating around about supporting Black voices and their visions and so forth. I don’t know that we were necessarily supposed to be beneficiaries of that particular idea. But I do believe that there’s been a real world disconnect between what the wide varieties of entities who claim to support Black artists and storytelling have said, and how they’ve responded when we have presented a piece of work that answers all of the needs of the things they say they want to support and promote. This is not coming from a place of entitlement. This is just saying, “you said you were thirsty and now we’ve got water.”
We’re working on things and we’re certainly getting closer to distribution. With any film there’s always going to be things that need to be considered and steps that need to be taken to get it into the marketplace. COVID did not help in terms of how it might have ended up in a public space in theaters. But in terms of streaming, that’s also got challenges now because suddenly you have a glut of material available to go into that space. So I understand that there are real world things that need to be negotiated around how something comes to the fore. But the simple idea of being accepted and brought into that with less difficulty than more is not what we’ve been experiencing.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is now playing virtually at the New York LGBTQ Film Festival until October 27.