Review: ‘TikTok Star Murders,’ starring Rachel Britt, Julia Stuntz, Kelsey Christensen, Cameron Jackson, Joni E. Johnston, Andrea Marks and Aleida Wahn

July 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Rachel Britt in “TikTok Star Murders” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“TikTok Star Murders”

Culture Representation: The documentary film “TikTok Star Murders” features an Asian and white group of people discussing the case of former TikTok personality Ali Abulaban (who used the screen name JinnKid), who has been convicted of the 2021 murders of his wife Ana Abulaban and her friend Rayburn Barron.

Culture Clash: Ali Abulaban, an admitted cocaine addict, grew increasingly jealous, controlling and abusive of Ana, and he murdered her and Barron shortly after she separated from him and moved into another home.  

Culture Audience: “TikTok Star Murders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries, but this documentary fails at telling a well-rounded and well-researched story.

Louis “Louie” Marinari in “TikTok Star Murders” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“TikTok Star Murders” has a tabloid-like focus on the most sensationalistic aspects of this notorious case and leaves out many important facts. This documentary mostly ignores Rayburn Barron, the other victim in this double homicide. Almost nothing is told about Barron in the documentary, except that he was a friend of Ana Abulaban, and they were both murdered in the same apartment in San Diego on October 21, 2021.

Ana’s estranged husband Ali Abulaban (who was born in 1992) confessed to the murders but claimed Ana (who was 28 when she died) provoked him into killing her and 29-year-old Barron. Ana and Barron were both murderd by gun violence in the apartment where Ana had moved after separating from Ali. Despite Ali’s claims that this was a manslaughter “crime of passion,” he was convicted in 2024 of two counts of first-degree murder. “TikTok Star Murders” was released before Ali received his prison sentence.

There is no director listed for this documentary, but George Plamondon is credited as the executive producer/showrunner of “TikTok Star Murders.” Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is an executive producer through his production company G-Unit Films & Television. “TikTok Star Murders” is very formulaic in how it’s formatted, from the ominous music to the re-enactments that are shown in slow-motion to increase the drama. The documentary claims to be about putting the focus on the victims, but Ana is the only murder victim in this double homicide who gets extensive commentary in this movie. Barron is mentioned only as an afterthought.

“TikTok Star Murders” tells a tragic tale that is unfortunately common in situations where domestic abuse turns into murder. Ali Abulaban (who used the screen name JinnKid) was born in New York City, and he was a rising star in social media, mainly because of his comedy skits and celebrity impersonations. Ali was obsessed with the 1983 film “Scarface,” starring Al Pacino as cocaine kingpin Tony Montana, so Ali’s impressions were mostly of Tony Montana. TikTok was the social media platform where Ali was the most popular.

Like many social media personalities, Ali was also an aspiring actor who wanted to break into movies and television. He also had a troubled past. Ali joined the U.S. Air Force in 2013. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where several U.S. military bases are located. Ana and her parents, who are originally from the Philippines, were also living in Okinawa because her father was in the military. This military location is how Ali and Ani met and began dating each other.

Ali’s military career was ruined in 2015, when he was dishonorably discharged for assaulting a friend of Ana’s. The “TikTok Star Murders” documentary should have given further details about this early warning sign of Ali’s violence, but this documentary has no interest in investigative journalism. The only “exclusives” this shoddily made documentary has to offer are some previously unreleased home videos and text messages of Ali being verbally abusive to Ana.

The documentary retells facts that are already known: After Ali was ousted in disgrace from the U.S. Air Force in 2015, he moved back home with his family in Bristow, Virginia. It was during this time that he started making social media videos that would go viral. He eventually was able to make enough money from social media for it to be a full-time job for him.

While Ali was in Bristow after his military discharge, Ana had moved back with her family to the Philippines when she found out that she was pregnant. Ali and Ana’s daughter Amira was born in the Philippines in 2016. The decision was made for Ana and Amira to move to the U.S. when they could get visas, which happened when Amira was still an infant. Ali and Ana got married and settled in Bristow. For many years, they presented a public image of being a happy couple in love.

Many of Ana’s female friends who grew up on the same Okinawa military base were now living in San Diego. After visiting them in San Diego, Ana fell in love with the city’s lifestyle and convinced Ali to move to San Diego, where they lived in an apartment building. According to people interviewed in the documentary, Ali agreed to this relocation mainly because San Diego’s proximity to Los Angeles would make it easier for him to get jobs in Hollywood movies and TV shows, compared to if he had stayed in Virginia. Ali never got hired for any work in the Hollywood entertainment industry. He was stuck doing social media videos.

This documentary gives very few details about Ali’s family. The only family member of Ali’s who is interviewed in this documentary is Louis “Louie” Mariani, who says he is Ali’s cousin. Mariani is vague about the family and will only say that Ali’s parents are Middle Eastern and conservative religious Muslims. Mariani describes Ali as a non-religious free spirit who didn’t follow a lot of expected traditions because Ali wanted to pursue a creative profession in the arts.

Mariani comments, “I really feel like Ali was meant to be a star.” Mariani also says the obvious about this murder tragedy: “I feel like this whole situation has turned my whole life upside down, as well as turned our whole family’s life upside down.” The problem is that Mariani doesn’t give any details about how the family reacted when they found out that Ali was abusing Ana. He also doesn’t offer any information to explain if Ali came from an abusive home or not, since many abusers have abusive childhoods.

The only clue that this documentary offers about Ali’s family is a video clip of Ana calling Ali’s mother during an argument when Ali was insulting Ana mercilessly in their San Diego apartment. Ali, who was obsessed with recording many things in his life, actually recorded this video. By then, the marriage had fallen apart, and Ana was telling Ali that she was going to leave him because he was abusive to her and she didn’t love him anymore.

In the video, Ana tells Ali’s mother that Ali is high on cocaine again. Ali’s mother can be heard on the phone saying that Ana should leave Ali. Ali’s mother also says that Ana and Amira can come live with her. Ali can be heard cursing and shouting that Ana is just trying to humiliate him. Ana eventually confided to friends that Ali was physically abusing her, but she often downplayed or hid how long this abuse had been going on.

Ali’s cocaine addiction is mentioned many times in the documentary, although the documentary never bothers to say or find out when Ali began abusing cocaine. However, Mariani and some of Ana’s friends mention that Ali became obvious about his cocaine abuse when he started to become a social media star. The documentary has no information about whether or not Ali or anyone else in his life tried to get him professional rehab/recovery treatment for his addiction.

According to the stories told in this documentary, Ali liked to have a big plastic bag of cocaine with him. He would take out the bag (even in public places where strangers could see him) and snort cocaine from it. On a few occasions (as seen in the documentary), Ali snorted cocaine on camera during his livestreams. Many people in his audience gave encouraging comments when he snorted cocaine on camera because it fit his Tony Montana wannabe persona.

One of this documentary’s biggest failings is that it has no information about Ana’s family. This huge void of information becomes even more noticeable as her friends talk about all the indications they saw that Ana was being abused. When did Ana’s family find out that Ali was abusing Ana? What did Ana’s family do to try to help Ana? The documentary never bothers to answer those questions.

Even if no one in Ana’s family wanted to be interviewed, information about what her family did or didn’t do to help her is what a responsible documentary would have included if it really wanted to tell the whole story of this domestic violence victim who was murdered. Instead, the only people speaking for Ana’s perspective are three of her friends: Rachel Britt, Julia Stuntz and someone identified only as Kayla, who says she knew Ana since they were teenagers in Okinawa.

Ana’s friends describe Ana as someone who blossomed from being an awkward and nerdy teenager into a stunningly beautiful woman who looked like she could be a model. Ana had a positive, kind and upbeat personality. She was a devoted and loving mother to Amira. After Ana moved to San Diego, her friends say that Ana got more into the physical fitness lifestyle.

However, in hindsight, Ana was very skilled at hiding a lot of her unhappiness and the physical abuse that she got from Ali. Her friends say that the biggest red flags that Ali was an abuser was how controlling, jealous and possessive he would be about Ana. Ali usually got very angry if Ana received more attention than he did, if she spent time with another man (even though she was a faithful wife, by all accounts), or if another man complimented Ana on her beauty. Ali often wrongfully accused Ana of cheating on him, even though Ali was the one in the marriage who eventually cheated, according to Ana’s friends.

As seen in videos shown in the documentary, toward the end of the marriage, Ali was openly calling Ana a “bitch” and a “whore” in his social media posts. He presented a narrative that Ana was an ungrateful immigrant who used him so that she could move to the United States and get resident alien status by marrying him. Ali’s misogynistic rants were “liked” by many people in his audience. And when Ana went public on TikTok that she was leaving her abusive marriage, Ali flew into a rage.

“TikTok Star Murders” only identifies people from Ali’s and Ana’s personal lives by their first names only, even though the full names of Britt, Stuntz and Mariani aren’t a secret because they testified in Ali’s trial and/or they’ve given other interviews to media outlets that reported their first and last names. Therefore, it seems unnecessary and fake for the documentary to try to make it look like they’re protecting these people’s privacy.

The only interviewee whose identity is completely hidden in the documentary is a young man using the alias Lucifer, who says he was Ali’s TikTok moderator. Lucifer is interviewed in the shadows to hide what his face looks like. His voice also sounds like it could have have been altered to protect his privacy. Lucifer says that he wants to be anonymous because he keeps his TikTok life separate from his real life. The only other person who speaks for Ali is a woman identified only as Rain, who has nothing insightful to say because she admits she only interacted with Ali as an “online friend” and never met him in person.

Also interviewed in the documentary are some journalists and people in law enforcement. Andrea Marks covered the case as a writer/reporter for Rolling Stone. Kelsey Christensen (a reporter for KSWB-TV, the Fox affiliate in San Diego) interviewed Ali in jail not long after he was arrested for the murders in 2021. Also interviewed in the documentary are former San Diego police officer Cameron Jackson; clinical/forensic psychologist and private investigator Dr. Joni E. Johnston, who was not involved in this case; and attorney Aleida Wahn, who does not represent Ali or anyone from the victims’ families and who did not work on this case.

Johnston mostly talks about domestic abuse and what to do in seeing warning signs and how to seek help. Ana’s friends also make impactful comments about not being bystanders to abuse. Britt says, “I want people not to be silent. Your truth is who you are … We need to be the change we want for the world.”

“TikTok Star Murders” competently serves as a cautionary tale about domestic abuse escalating into murder. The documentary also points out that what is presented as “truth” on social media can often be deliberately false or misleading of what’s happening in real life. None of this is surprising news, and this documentary just lazily regurgitates other people’s reporting on this case.

The documentary is incomplete and sloppy in too many areas, particularly when it comes to omitting a lot of relevant details. It’s mentioned in the documentary that media coverage of this case hardly ever mentions murder victim Barron, but the documentary does the same thing by ignoring Barron’s life story. Viewers will have a lot of questions about him that this documentary never answers.

How incomplete and sloppy in this documentary? “TikTok Star Murders” also doesn’t mention that Ana was married to someone else before she married Ali. Her first husband Shawn Torres was also in the U.S. military and knew Ali when they were stationed in Okinawa. Torres testified for the prosecution in Ali’s trial. That information isn’t in this documentary either. Ultimately, “TikTok Star Murders” doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself from the cheap, quickly made true crime documentaries that are churned out in a tacky manner and are the equivalent of ambulance chasers.

Peacock premiered “TikTok Star Murders” on June 25, 2024.

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