Julius Onah’s Luce is what I call a “bookclub movie.” That is to say, you’ll be engrossed enough as you watch it, but perhaps the best part will be discussing the film’s knotty moral themes and complex character motivations when it’s over. The film is based off a play (by J.C. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay)—and it often feels that way. Characters are prone to monologuing. Sometimes they explicitly state their worldview, in a way that feels a little stilted. Still, there’s lots of interesting stuff to chew on.
When we first meet school valedictorian Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) he’s giving a speech to an assembled crowd of classmates, parents, and teachers. Handsome, eloquent, with a quick smile, he actually encourages his classmates to take a moment to thank and appreciate the adults in their life who have guided them. From the audience, his parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth,) beam with pride. So does the school principal (Norbert Leo Butz). Indeed, most everyone assembled takes a certain personal pride in Luce’s success. He was adopted from a war-torn African nation when he was seven. And look at him now! What a credit to his parents, to the community, to white people he is!
And there’s something even more disturbing at play. There’s a suggestion that, at this mostly white school, there’s only room for one Luce—one shining success story. Another black boy at school is kicked off the football team—his best shot at getting into college—because marijuana was found in his locker (although all the kids on the team get high). He’s considered the anti-Luce. In this community, there’s a right and a wrong way to be black.
It’s an African American teacher at the school, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) who suspects that Luce isn’t as well-adjusted as he seems. In class, she gives the kids an assignment to write in the voice of an historical figure and he chooses Frantz Fanon, a radical French West Indian philosopher who railed against racism and believed that using violence against oppressors was always justified. Disturbed by this, she takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker, where she finds a bag of fireworks. Does Luce have the potential for violence? Or is he just a smart kid who did the assignment? (He claims the fireworks weren’t his; he and his teammates sometimes share lockers.)
Ms. Wilson expresses her concerns to Amy and here, I confess, is where the film lost me a bit. Because instead of confronting her son, point-blank, Amy tiptoes around him, taking the fireworks and hiding them (not destroying them), and never asking him to address the essay. Indeed, lots of the film’s ongoing tensions are based on maddening inaction by its characters. If only people would sit down and have a goddamn frank conversation, we could’ve avoided this whole thing!
Still, Luce intriguingly plays with ideas of how we put people in boxes, stereotype them—often to make us feel better about ourselves or to preserve our own role in the public ecosystem. Is Ms. Wilson, who is one of the only black teachers at the school, merely looking out for the black students in her midst, or is she projecting her own insecurities, her own need for acceptance in this community onto them?
Ultimately, Luce is more about ideas and archetypes than actual human behavior, but it’s never less than compelling. And Harrison Jr. is really something special as Luce, who on the surface radiates a kind of enviable self-possession, but is clearly struggling with the expectations that have been placed on him. In one scene, he practices another speech that he will deliver, talking to an empty theater about how his parents changed his African name to the easier-to-pronounce “Luce” (meaning light) and he breaks down crying. It’s little glimpses into his pain—and other scenes that show him running with a look of defiant anger on his face—that make us wonder who Luce really is. One thing is for sure, his identity does not belong to himself—and the selfish adults around him don’t see how unfair that is.
Luce is now playing at the Charles Theatre.