When Nina Simone wrote “Four Women,” she didn’t have someone like Stanley Kalu in mind. In fact, the track off her 1966 album Wild is the Wind was about the ancestry of Black women and the enduring legacy of slavery. Still, Kalu knows intimately what Simone meant when she sang “between two worlds, I do belong.” When he was 19, then a sophomore at the University of Southern California tasked with writing his first screenplay, all the Nigeria-born son of a World Health Organization ambassador could think of was the two worlds he straddled.
“I had all these feelings and kept seeing people that look like me die every day in America,” he says. “And then back home, it's not like here. Queer people die in the same way.”
The unfortunate parallels inspired him to pen the script for The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which premieres Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I wanted to piece together these experiences of violence that I've seen … to show what life is like against death and what it feels like to be devalued and to constantly die every day, which I think is the experience of [people of color] in America,” he said. “Maybe people would stop being such assholes.”
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is the latest addition to the (unofficial) Black Lives Matter Cinematic Universe, recent filmic renderings of contemporary socio-political life inspired by and related to the rise and enduring legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Tunde, a wealthy, Nigerian-American teen who attends a mostly white high school in Southern California. As he grapples with coming out to his parents as gay and the woes of a secret boyfriend, he finds himself stuck in a triggering time loop of police brutality, being killed by cops and immediately awakening to relive the same day over and over. It stars Steven Silver (13 Reasons Why), Spencer Neville, and Nicola Peltz (Bates Motel).
Now a senior at USC, after this weekend, Kalu will be one of a few of his classmates who can say a film they wrote world premiered at one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals worldwide before they graduated. And that’s thanks to The Launch Million Dollar Screenplay Competition that he won last year.
“I actually had been rejected from a couple other [competitions],” Kalu says,” so I was feeling pretty down when I applied.” He recalled one comment he received from a judge that said “no one wants to see drugged up kids going through this. People still want stories.”
But he submitted the same screenplay unchanged, and won a $50,000 education grant, agent and manager representation, and script feedback from the judging panel at The Launch Million Dollar Competition. Oh, and the chance for his script to be produced as a feature film with a budget of at least $1 million.
The Emmy Award-winning Ali LeRoi was one of the competition’s judges and is not shy about the fact that he “argued vehemently for [The Obituary of Tunde Johnson] to be the winner.”
“There was some other really, really great scripts, but I've never seen this movie,” LeRoi, the co-creator of Everybody Hates Chris, says. “It has these issues about identity and violence in our society. And then for me, where I connected around to it is that it just had larger issues about being accepted as a whole person. It's the issue of humanity above everything else. Can I be who I am and can you accept me as that?
“So, when I was talking with the other judges and ultimately the producers, it was like, if you're going to make something, make something they haven't seen,” he continues. “Give them something unexpected. Try to give them something fresh, something that you believe in.”
LeRoi believed in the film so much that he signed on to direct it for his feature debut. Such a belief is understandable, because truly, there haven’t been many characters, if any, like Tunde. To be honest, just the fact that he’s gay and also depicted as a victim of state violence is unfortunately revolutionary. But it was inspired by Kalu’s own upbringing.
“When you move throughout Africa, all you ever see is homophobia and violence towards people who identify as queer,” he says. “It's one of those things that's so prevalent and so damaging, that a lot of kids don’t get out of that, and if they do, they die.” But, over time, he’s seen his own mother (“a very religious woman”) move away from being homophobic “by simply watching Ellen [DeGeneres] every day.”
“As she saw a human being dance and be happy, we were able to have such a beautiful conversation about sexuality and binaries and all that stuff,” he continues. “And for her to be able to call me [to discuss these things] is a very, very powerful thing. So, when I was thinking about [this film,] I wanted to subvert the idea of this Black family that’s not going to love their child.”
To that end, both Kalu and LeRoi are aware that the film might be received in a polarizing manner, despite how urgent it may be. But LeRoi is clear about what impending reactions actually mean: Because art is reflective whatever reviews say reflect hangs ups or emotions already present in the viewer and have little to nothing to do with the film itself, according to him.
“I know that there is integrity [in this film] because between what I brought to the project as director, what Stanley's bringing to the project as a writer, [and] how connected we are to the material for our various reasons, it's a true piece of work in that regard,” he says. “We're not culture vultures, we're not appropriating. We're speaking to things that we have true, honest, and heartfelt beliefs about and doing our best to render that in the piece that people going to look at.”
For Kalu, this past year has been his “Hannah Montana year” — things have completely changed since his win at The Launch.
“It's very weird to go from an editing session to math class,” he said, “but it's been really wonderful to live out dreams that you've always had. Every day is surreal and beautiful and I'm just really grateful because there's like no one from where I'm from that ever gets here — and not this young. So yeah, every day's a miracle.”