The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a movie with some familiar elementsbut they're used to make a novel film.
The movie uses the time-loop element that's probably most popular in the film Groundhog Day. However, director Ali LeRoi's movie features the title charactera wealthy, gay Nigerian-American prep-school student (played by Steven Silver) who repeatedly meets a violent end. This movie features many issues, including mental health, racism, drug addiction, police brutality and, of course, LGBTQ acceptance.
Windy City Times: Ali, I understand that you have connections to Chicago. [He currently resides in Los Angeles.] How often do you get back, and what do you miss most about the city?
Ali LeRoi: Wow. The last time I was there was two years ago. My son and ex-wife live there, and I have a lot of family. What do I miss the most? The lakefront. I used to spend a ton of time in Hyde Park; we used to hang out at the Point [Promontory Point]. I loved being in that part of town. I could talk about the food all day long, but the lakefront was just a really peaceful place for me. There are beaches in L.A., of course, but it's a different kind of vibe; in Chicago, it's like a giant park at the lake. Summers in Chicago are beautifulhumid, but beautiful. [Laughs]
WCT: People know you from comedies [such as co-creating the TV show Everybody Hates Chris]. Was it just the challenge of doing a drama that attracted you to this project?
AL: The script came through a screenplay competition, and I was one of the judges. We looked at a lot of material, and there were other scripts that were just as good, in their own rightbut this one was special because I had never seen anything like it.
When the judging process was finished, I walked away and didn't think I'd have anything else to do with it. But [co-producers] Zach [Green] and Jason [Shuman] called me and asked me if I'd be interested in directing it because I had been so passionate about the material. So it was the material itselfit's super-uniqueand I hadn't had the chance to do a feature, so there was that. Also, at this point in life, I wanted to do something that would expand what I could do as an artist, as a director.
WCT: With this movie, there are a lot of issues for the viewer to absorb. Is this the type of movie that you thought the viewer might have to watch two or three times to catch them all?
AL: I did not think that. People are intuitive; when they're watching things, they're going to have these reactions. Sometimes, people might accept or reject somethingbut it's speaking to them, one way or another. Even if it's something they don't understand implicitly, they still feel that they understand something about the piece. But on the flip, it's a complex piece of work, and I think people might be inclined to watch it more than once because there are things that might get by you. I think the movie warrants repeated viewing because there is a lot to absorb, in part, because of the shock of where it might take you. I hope people watch it lots of times.
WCT: I don't know the sexualities of the lead actorsand, actually, don't care to. I'm just curious about where you stand regarding the hot-button topic of non-LGBTQ actors taking on LGBTQ roles?
AL: AlrightI'm going to start at the top and work my way into it.
One, in the name of art, I think that people who are creative should be free to tackle subject matter that they're interested in and in a way they see fit. It may speak to everyone, but it may speak to somebody. And while it may not answer all of the concern of immediately affected communities, if creating that art opens that door to interactions and conversations with people who aren't necessarily in that group, then it's all good.
It's The Color Purple, right? Steven Spielberg was behind The Color Purple, and people asked why he did it. It's because he could do it. So Alice Walker wrote this incredible piece of material and I'm sure there are a lot of Black people who would've liked to have been involved. When Quentin Tarentino did Django [Unchained], he got Reggie Hudlin to help walk him through this process.
A lot of times, at the outset, you have well-intentioned people doing something that they think will helpand I'm never against that. However, what we have progressed to is a space where we want to engage with people who have direct experiences with this material, in one way or another, and who are capable of executing the vision. So regarding the fact that the actors may not have disclosed certain things about themselves, if the work makes you feel like they did a great joblike I didn't Rock Hudson was gay when he was going around and kissing Doris Day. We've been watching that for decades.
The reality is that the LGBTQ+ community is having this odd reverse experience. It's not by choice that the people from this community have been placed in positions where they had to deny or obfuscate their identity in order to workbut they have proven that you don't have to be from a particular community to convincingly portray the stories from it. So that's a real thing, but it doesn't speak to the necessity and responsibility to bring it voices from those communities so things can be authentic and sensitive.
What I can tell you, without being specific, is that Stanley [Kalu, the screenwriter] and I had those voices around us, and that the material is informed because we didn't bring ego to the table and assume we could tell the story without a certain form of informational perspective. We wanted to make sure the material is handled in a way that's satisfactory to the audience.
WCT: I think Russell T. Davies [the creator of the original Queer As Folk] made waves recently by saying that only gay actors should be cast in gay roles in order to lend authenticity.
AL: I don't disagree at all. But in the reality of the work we do, a great actor wants to be able to do a great thing. It's the same argument I had as a Black writer and creator. We had that period in the '90s, when there were a bunch of Black sitcomsbut I would wonder, "Why can I write on Two and a Half Men?" I can write black-ish, but I can't write this other thing. We've always had this experience that white people have been able to captain the ships of our stories, but we have not been conversely given the same opportunity; I know of a white guy who worked on Sanford & Son. Ava [DuVernay] was able to do Selmaand, fortunately, that didn't stop her from doing A Wrinkle in Time.
I'm all for creative people have the access, option and support to tell the story that they can tell.
WCT: Side note: Thanks for having David James Elliott in this movie.
AL: He was so good, and he had a tricky role to play. He had to convincingly portray this conservative persona, but I think what attracted to the role was shifting to a guy who is different in private than he is in public. He did a fantastic job.
WCT: Going into this movie, I thought there would be different perspectives of the same set of factsbut different time lines actually have different events. Is this, in a way, a commentary on the concept of "alternative facts?"
AL: Not really. In this type of movie, there is a predetermined goal of a person trying to get to a particular place. In the time-loop function, they actually get a chance to correct the last mistake so they can get a step further.
In this film, Tunde's destination is not clear to him, so he has to understandbecause he's a substance abuserif what is happening to him is real. If it is real, why is it occurringand what is he supposed to do about it? So he's trying to wrap his head around this thing, and it keep shifting. It's like a butterfly effect or domino effect; if you change one thing, you change the trajectory. Unfortunately, they all end up with him meeting this horrible fatebut he does keep getting further. It's a complex psychological drama in that way. You can't get ahead of him.
WCT: What do you want people to take away from this movie?
AL: What I think is the most important thing is that people can check their own responses. If watching this makes you sad, then maybe you need to find a way to express or address that. If it makes you angry, maybe you need to sit with that for a second. If you reject this outright, then you have to ask yourself why it's so problematic when it's something that's happening in the world.
I guess I want people to be introspective about why this movie had to be made, and why we were able to find six different instances that are related to what's happened in our society and that fuel our narrative about Black bodies being destroyed at the hands of law enforcement.
It would've been nice to make a comedy, but it's absolutely necessary. Stanley wrote it just before the explosion of events last summer. We made itand it became even more relevant. We did this, and then life happened.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is on Video On Demand.