Amid the glamour and mania of the Toronto International Film Festival, audiences discovered a quiet gem: The Obituary of Tunde Johnson.
The story behind the film could inspire a movie itself. Producers Zachary Green and Jason Shuman founded The Launch, a screenplay contest by which unknown writers could secure funding for a feature film. Stanley Kalu nabbed the inaugural honors for the script to Tunde Johnson, written while in film school. Talk about a lucky break.
Veteran TV writer/director Ali LeRoi makes his feature debut with The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the story of a black, gay high schooler haunted by repeated visions of his death at the hands of police. The resultant film plays like a hallucination on queerness, race and police violence: the kind of movie that raises as many questions as it addresses. Actor Steven Silver (13 Reasons Why) proves his leading man talent in the title role, while up-and-comers Nicola Peltz (Bates Motel) and Spencer Neville (Days of Our Lives) show off their own range as Tunde’s best friend Marley, and his secret boyfriend Soren.
Queerty scored time to chat with director LeRoi, writer Kalu and the cast during the Toronto Film Festival, and to discuss the electrifying implications of the film, and how to address the ongoing plight of queer, African-American men. The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is currently seeking distribution.
Stanley, I’ll start with you: where does Tunde come from?
Sanley Kalu: I grew up in Nigeria. I lived all over Africa for the majority of my life, 18 years. When I came to America, it was the first time I was a minority in my life. It was a very dehumanizing thing, because I’d always been “Stanley” my whole life. For the first time, I was black first, and all the associations that come with that. I felt like the system was really eroding my sense of self. I’m a tall, black male with broad shoulders. Watching television, I would always see another black male die. And another, and another. And it felt like a time loop. I kept seeing people that looked like me die every day.
SK: That put me in a real depression because when people who look like you are dying every day, it gives you anxiety. You feel like you could be next, like you’re being hunted. It turns out, on the continents that I’ve lived in, queer people are subject to extreme state violence. We’re talking about being put in jail or being stoned in the streets. So Tunde comes from when we try to piece together these aspects of how that occurs. I was 19 and a sophomore in the screenwriting program at USC. It’s a class where you write a feature. And it just ripped out of me, just trying to process these pieces. I wrote one draft and won the competition.
So where were you when you got that phone call?
SK: This is funny. I was in a friend’s apartment and I got this call from Zachary Green and Jason Shuman, creators of The Launch. It was crazy: after they told me, I called my mom. My mom—she’s very religious and I’m calling her shaking. I’m like “Mom, I won.” And I started crying. In a way, all the weight of what I felt I’d experienced started rushing out of my body. And she’s like “I’m in church! Don’t cry or I’ll start crying!”
SK: So me and my mom were just crying on the phone. I really had a breakdown. There was so much pain I was holding in, and anxiety and fear that it just rushed out completely in that moment.
That’s amazing. So why Ali?
SK: Ali was a judge for The Launch, and he fought for the script. There’s this thing—I think if you’re a person of color, you understand certain nuances and a lot of what I’m doing within the project. If you live outside of that, it becomes a more difficult thing to interact with because there’s a lot of stuff there that isn’t necessarily for you.
SK: So he fought a lot for it. We met. And for me, if I feel a person truly engage with the material, it lets me know that they’re with it. If you come up to me and say “Great movie,” that’s great. I really appreciate it. But if you come up to me and really engage with the material and talk about the constructions of it, that’s far more fulfilling. Ali was really engaged and had ideas about variations. So we immediately had that back and forth about visuals and story.
What made you choose this project as your debut, Ali?
Ali LeRoi: It chose me. I was a judge in the competition and a real advocate for selecting the script. Then I walked away. I didn’t not know I was going to direct the film. Zach and Jason called me and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I almost felt like I can’t not do it.
AL: You know, when you speak up for something or someone or extend a level of care about it, the passion is already there. So I figured, I have to do this. I loved the script. I loved the people involved. It was almost like I’m the loudmouth who convinced them to do this. Now I’m going to walk away? I can’t.
It fits well with the rest of your resume in that you’ve written and directed a lot of television centered on African-American men. Now, do you identify as queer as well?
AL: No. Let me see if I can get this straight: I am a cisgender, heterosexual, African-American male.
I think that works. It is a lot of labels. Stanley then, for you as a queer, black–
SK: No, we shouldn’t do that. I don’t want to talk about sexuality.
SK: I’m very low key. [Kalu declined to label or discuss his sexuality any further]
Ok, well the narrator is a gay man in the film. So Ali, for you as a straight man, what made you feel you were the right man for the job?
AL: Well the narrator is a kid who is struggling with trying to find his place in the world. I have two sons. I was young. I have been in the company of and had conversations and experiences with issues of identity, be it racial or sexual. Those topics are not new to me. Also, there was an authority in terms of where the material came from. Stanley’s understanding of what it means to identify as other in African society—it’s a threat that exists that doesn’t exist in the States.
When I was in Africa, I was an American. Me being black was, I dare say, meaningless because everybody is black. I was an American. So when he came here and suddenly he was a black person and diminished—to take those two aspects of a person, and marry them into one character, and create a challenge for that, I get all of it. Part of my experience as a writer and just moving through society functionally as an outsider allowed me to embrace aspects of what that experience might be. I’m not talking about sexuality, I’m talking about how to fit in.
Which is something we all experience at times. One of the major themes in the film is anxiety, and we see this through Tunde’s eyes. But it is something that afflicts all the characters—everyone is sort of stuck in their head.
AL: Every character is challenged in some way by every other character. We know we have our own fears, we know we have our own conceptions and misconceptions. What we don’t know is what the other person thinks. Tunde is afraid of what his father might think. Soren is afraid of what his dad might think. Alfred O’Connor is afraid of what people who watch his show might think. Marley is afraid of what Soren thinks. All these people give other people so much power over how they’re supposed to be. And these things exist outside of race and sexuality. Alfred O’Connor has no reason to be apprehensive about his moving through society. Yet he is saying with a straight face “I just want to be heard.” It’s like, you have a TV show!
The most ironic line in the film. So why this cast?
AL: The simple answer is you saw them. They’re great.
AL: Each one of them brought presence, dedication and craft. Presence, for me, is they didn’t deal with this material by rote. They were very open and available to an evolving creative process. We had a limited amount of time, and there was an aggressive approach to storytelling to pull back layers.
[Stanley turns to Steven]
SK: It’s funny, I remember when you were auditioning, my face was completely blank. I always think that a good actor—they walk into a room, and they’re themselves. And when they begin acting, they grow to ten times their size. It’s a crazy thing to watch. Steven began and filled the room. And he understood the nuances of the joy and the fear and the earnestness of Tunde, and then he just sucked back into himself. And I said “There’s no way that’s not him.”
SK: He pushed it past where I thought it could go.
So how did you find Tunde, Steven?
Steven Silver: I think that when you’re existing outside the power group—and like [Stanley] was saying, he lived in Africa and so he’d always been in the power group. I’ve never experienced that. So I think everyone who is outside that group has Tunde in some capacity.
You’re working with some very tricky material here, Steven: scenes where you have nobody to play against, scenes where we need to know what you’re thinking just by looking at you. For example, Tunde has a breakdown scene in his room. How did Ali direct you in a scene?
SS: Well he pulled me to the side and told me to release. He made sure I knew everything in the room was up for grabs and, emotionally, made me feel very safe. He scheduled that late into shooting, and by the time we got there, I really trusted him. I think that’s what it was: him gaining my trust and pushing me as far as I could go.
It’s a great scene. All of your actors have at least one great scene which offers so much more insight into who these people are. Nicola, you evoke a young Rose McGowan in this: the same bombshell looks, but with an edge.
Nicola Peltz: Thank you so much!
My question about her though: how in love with Soren is she?
NP: She’s really in love with Soren. She does things because she thinks its what he wants. Which is so relatable, not just to a high schooler, but to everyone in life. You know, the final scene between Marley and Soren, it’s so hurtful because she’s so in love with him. This whole time she’s been blaming herself: I’m not pretty enough. I’m not the girl you want? What’s wrong with me? She’s always looking at her self. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It’s not about right or wrong, some situations that are really hurtful when you’re in love with someone.
Now, Soren is so interesting in part because you can see him as bisexual or you can see him as gay. In a way, Tunde and Soren are foils of one another: mirror images separated by a key choice. For you as an actor, how do you view him, and how did that affect your choices and approach to the character?
Spencer Neville: I think that Soren is gay, and what he is presenting to the world is based in fear and a struggle for identity. That’s the way I approach the story: it’s about two guys struggling with identity, that are in love. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, straight or gay, queer, whatever—you can connect with that aspect of it.
That’s part of what gives the film its power. The other is that the hallucinatory, time-loop format is almost poetic in the sense that certain dialogue and images repeat like verse, yet it never feels like different takes of the same scene.
AL: You weren’t. You were watching totally different performances.
And that was a conscious choice?
AL: Yes. The minor gradations make a difference.
AL: It is those shifts, going through the same thing over and over, what Steven is bringing to the table were microexpressions sometimes: little things so that you know it isn’t the same as last time. That was important to the filmmaking and important to the actors.
SN: And we were filming the same scene six or seven different ways in a day. So we’d have to do it one after the next with little things changing each time. That was such a cool thing to try.
Do you improvise?
SN: We did.
AL: There was a lot, not in the traditional sense. We had the scenes, and they had worked the material. So for me, if there’s improvisation, it’s part of the performance. An actor is like a musician. Classical music is you play it this way and if you don’t, it’s wrong. Coltrane said “Here are the chords. Do you.” If you’re not doing you you’re not doing anything. So that was how we tried to expand and interpret Stanley’s material: keeping the foundation, then finding space for them as actors to shine.
SN: My favorite, and I love this, is in [my and Nicola’s] last scene together. We’d done it a couple of times, and then Ali comes up to me and says “You cannot under any circumstance let her know.” And then he said something to her…
NP: He was like “Get it out of him.”
SN: So when she asked me, I had no idea what was coming. None of that was in the script. We knew what was supposed to happen in the scene, but it was all in the micro-moments, which is an actor’s dream.
Elements of the story also repeat like poetry, or rhyme with one another. Soren and Tunde both have to make a similar choice. For Tunde, that saves his soul. For Soren, that’s not really true. In that context, how does that affect your choices as an actor?
SS: I think that we’re experiencing the story through Tunde’s eyes, and he knows he’s part of something bigger. Soren doesn’t understand that yet. He believes in preservation of self out of fear for completely selfish reasons. Tunde has gotten to the point where he realizes it’s either death or conquer fear. Tunde realizes he doesn’t want to die. He just wants to stop being in pain.
What happens to him the next day?
SS: I think he starts to investigate what living is instead of surviving.
[Stanley lights up with joy]
Great answer. Let the record show, Stanley digs it. What about for you and Soren, Spencer? He makes a very different choice. Why do you think that is?
SN: Fear. The main thing Soren wants in his life is acceptance from his father. His dad is the #1 person in his life. He would give up anything to feel accepted in that life. That’s where his struggle lays: just trying acceptance from one person in the world.
AL: That’s the tricky thing about the story. Tunde unequivocally states that he thinks Soren is going to save him. Tunde doesn’t even see acceptance by his own parents as the final arbiter of his fate. He needs Soren to accept him.
This is a loaded question, but it’s always interesting to see the art in terms of the life of the artist. How much of you, Ali, is Tunde?
AL: Honestly, not a lot. I relate much more with Soren.
Why is that?
AL: Well, unfortunately, I’m divorced. And a lot of what I experienced in marriage was an unwillingness to face certain things that I was troubled by, afraid of, or didn’t know how to articulate. In the face of a wife and family who needed so desperately to tell them what was actually happening, it wasn’t something I was able to do. And that ultimately would end my marriage. So watching Soren in the arms of his father unable to tell a person he loves what’s really going on with him, was a thing I related to.
Does that make it painful when you have to sort of relive your own frustrations through a scene or a character like that?
AL: It’s difficult in the sense that it’s not necessarily an experience that I enjoy having had. But at the same time, you know, as artists…that is the thing I have to embrace. If I can express this truth and these experiences through art and now be able to recognize and have a conversation about it, and perhaps help someone else pull acceptance for themselves from it, that’s where it is for me.
One reason, as a queer man, that I responded to this film, is that it furthers the conversation about the plight of African-American gay men. This is something that has come up a lot in other interviews I’ve done: the idea that as far as LGBTQ people have come, specifically for black, gay men there is still—both in the queer community and the African-American community—this resistance. For you as the writer, Stanley, where does that resistance come from?
SK: I think it’s very interesting because white spaces often look at black spaces and say “Why aren’t you here?” I think that’s a reductive concept because the trauma of being African-American is so deep and hurtful that white progressive culture asking why we haven’t caught up is white progressive culture not understanding its own sense. The African-American community will approach that and will be very, very accepting of queer black men eventually, but you have to understand that there’s a handicap. When you’re dealing with preserving your own body, and dealing with the fear and anxiety of being black, you have more things to deal with before you get to a progressive space. But I do know it’s coming. There’s greater representations and having these conversations with films like Moonlight or men like Billy Porter, I think it’s arriving. But people need to be patient. Change is incremental and very slow, but it does happen.
For those of us who are queer, but not necessarily African-American, how do we help further the conversation?
SK: That’s a really good question. How do we further the conversation?
So many LGBTQ people know this conversation needs to happen, and we want to help our queer brethren, but don’t feel like it’s a conversation we have a right to start or bring up.
SK: It’s about listening. Just like the construct of the film—engaging in with queer, black material, engage with queer black people and not in a way that you’re having them be the voice of it all. Just be friends. Empathize. This entire film is putting you in the subjective brain of a black man in America. So, I really think it’s about engaging with people on a human level. Each experience is so individual.
SK: Say “How can I as a white person make you feel more safe in this space?” It’s really that simple. Just approach them. Have a relationship. That’s why that line about listening is so vital. There are all these ideas about taking action. As you see at one point in the film, Soren is trying to help Tunde but gets him killed because he’s not listening. He’s taking action, not listening. It’s just that. Engage people. Then you’ll find the answer. Any answer I would give will be the antithesis of how I view this. I cannot speak for all communities. Does that make sense?
I think so.
SK: It would be best to go to your gay black friends, or your black friends, or any marginalized people and ask them: how can I make you feel more safe? If you do that, you’ll have a multiplicity of answers in which you can find a solid idea of what you as a person can do. That’s complex, but I do think it’s on an individual basis. Blackness is not a monolith. Queerness is not a monolith. I don’t ever want to play the game that it is. The idea that marginalized people exist as a monolith is very destructive.
That’s very true. Queer people are very different from one another and often have different needs.
SK: And that’s the point. Engage on a really personal level. Any grandstanding—that’s why the movie is not dogmatic. I really don’t play at being didactic or with dogma. What I try and do is present an individual story that hopefully, will make space for other individual stories. We’re interested in discourse, not dogma.
Now that’s a great line.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is currently seeking distribution.