What's Going On In 'Luce'? Kelvin Harrison Jr. And Octavia Spencer Duel Over Racial Tokenism In Tense, Foreboding Drama [Sundance Review]

February 4th 2019

In almost every facet of Western society, there is very little that Black men can do to control how society perceives them. Educated or not, privileged or not, wealthy or not—the woes that are placed on Black men often leave no room for negotiation. Thus, we have Luce, the latest film from Julius Onah, which is already a worthy achievement after the filmmaker’s misstep with The Cloverfield Paradox, a surprise-release Netflix film which got panned by critics for  its muddled narrative. With Luce, he has another thriller and may have been able to better focus on narratives and characters without the sci-fi element. Luce, a film so sharp with tension that you might develop paper cuts just watching it, seeks to dive into our preconceived notions about how Black people in society are supposed to develop themselves—and completely decimates said notions. In doing so, Onah utilizes a teacher-student relationship—what the Black teacher expects of her Black student —to analyze how much the “well-behaved Negro” stereotype is forever ingrained in our psyche, no matter what.  

The film follows Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) a standout student in his Arlington, Virginia community and school. His doting parents Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), adopted him from war-riddled Eritrea at age seven, determined to give the former child soldier a chance at a better life. Popular at his high school, he’s become a standout athlete and student. He’s excelled so much that he’s become the poster child for the school and the community as the boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the token Black kid that has been given a better life and made the most of it—until he writes an essay for class that shatters his parents’ expectations of him and disturbs his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

Wilson's assignment requires Luce to write an essay in the voice of a historical twentieth-century figure. Knowing Luce's background as a former child soldier, the figure in whose voice Luce chooses to write bothers her so bad that she further investigates the bright young student, and this triggers a series of events that will have everyone questioning who Luce really is.

While Get Out is an obvious social psychological thriller, perhaps Luce exists, albeit more subtly, in the same vein. Without gore and panic, this drama will still have you sitting at the edge of your seat—a genre-bending effort for which Onah deserves praise.

One of the most frustrating—and in a weird way, equally pleasing— parts of Luce is that the film is not interested in giving you any sort of answers to the tons of questions that pop in your head during the duration of this film. Is Luce a psychopath? Could he actually commit atrocities? What actually happened in any of these incidents that he's written about? We never know anything. We never even get an idea of Luce’s complete headspace.

At the crux of Luce is the idea of racial stereotyping and tokenism and that’s what puts Harrison’s Luce and Spencer’s Ms. Wilson at odds. Luce’s beef with Wilson is that she projects her ideas of what her students (especially her Black students) should act like, onto them. In Luce’s mind, he didn’t ask for any of this. Why is he, as a Black teen in an upwardly-mobile white family, not subject to things that his Black friends are? Spencer's Ms. Wilson subverts the typical protective Black surrogate mother character trope by providing this non-familial protection and guidance to a Black child in Luce. Her expectations are a matter of literal life and death, because she knows how high the stakes are to be a Black person in America.

While the film’s provocative intent seems geared toward continuing America's long conversation about race, in order to make this happen, there is a lack of care and haphazardness attached to the parts of this story that involve female characters. For example, sexual assault is used here as the means of advancing the plot instead of a character-driven narrative. Though the film in general is uncomfortable (in a mostly good way), there is an incredibly uncomfortable (in a bad way) nude scene that is strung together by a not-so fleshed out plotline about mental illness in the Black community that comes across as more exploitative and gratuitous than thought-provoking.

Then, the fact that Luce is a child soldier from a country in Africa living with white, rich Americans, can be problematic for hundreds of reasons, but it’s part of the dialogue that Onah and the film want to have. But with the many cringe-worthy and problematic aspects of the film, along with sexual assault and mental illness, Onah is fighting an uphill battle. He wants to tackle rape culture, the reasoning behind white families adopting Black kids, adoption vs. having kids of your own, teenage sexuality, burdens put on caretakers, school expulsion for minor drug offenses — [takes a deep breath] and so much more. But, he takes on so much, that the story suffers and is unable to accurately and wholly have the conversation it wants to have.

As for the performances, Academy Award-winner Spencer is at her peak in Luce and gives what’s sure to go down as one of the best performances of her career. Newcomer Harrison Jr. may finally get his well-deserved due after thrilling on the festival circuit the last couple of years with films like Monster and Monsters and Men. After incredible showings in those films, he escalates even further in this film, proving he’s a great talent who is just waiting in the wings to be that bonafide star. He goes toe-to-toe with Spencer, as well as Naomi Watts, showing he can battle with the best. The way he handily transitions from cold and calculated to warm and endearing is honestly award-worthy. Watts plays with ease the raw conflict of the white adoptive mother choosing between believing her adopted Black son or destroying the years of trust she’s built. The underlying tension of not wanting to fail as an ally and a privileged person in a position of power weighs the character of Amy down, and Watts sells it.

I think that Onah has the conversation he wants to have but it doesn't necessarily have it successfully, only because there are so many themes that the film tries to tackle instead of its primary theme of white guilt and tokenizing the "happy Negro." The unpacking white guilt and the white savior complex isn't completely fulfilled — but that seems to be a part of the point Onah is trying to make. But by the end of the film, it’s hard to leave Luce and think that it was all for nothing, because you’ll surely be thinking about Luce and Ms. Wilson’s thoughts, actions and consequences for some time.

Luce premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019. After its debut, it was acquired by NEON and Topic Studios. They will release the film sometime in 2019.

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