In Trump's America, such as it is, issues such as race, gender, and class have become more incendiary topics than they've been in years. It's a house divided against itself, and it's the setting for Luce, a film which examines a myriad of these issues. Adapted from the play of the same name by J.C. Lee
, Luce was written for the screen by Lee and Julius Onah
, and directed by Onah. Tackling all manner of hot-button issues, including race, class, gender, power, privilege, #MeToo, academic achievement, stereotypes, liberal elitism, even revolutionary rhetoric and the importance of language in encoding societal/political power structures, it also works as a thriller about a young man who may, or may not, be a dangerous sociopath posing as the embodiment of the American Dream. Without question it asks a lot of the audience, meaning some simply won't want to put in the effort. It's by no means perfect - it's too long, lapses into repetition, and it spreads itself too thin thematically - but, by and large, this is strong work, with plenty to say to those willing to listen.
In Arlington, VA, 17-year-old Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.
) is the adopted son of Peter (Tim Roth
) and Amy (Naomi Watts
). Born in Eritrea, Luce spent the first seven years of his life as a child soldier. However, with the love of his adopted parents and a lot of therapy, he has grown into an exceptional young man; all-star athlete, captain of the debating team, all-round honour student. However, when his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer
), who has a reputation for being harder on black students, gives an assignment to write from the perspective of a revolutionary, Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, the Pan-Africanist writer who argued that colonialism could only be defeated by violence. Disturbed by Luce's apparent endorsement of Fanon's theories, Wilson searches his locker without his permission (something she has also done to other students), finding powerful fireworks, and so sets out to convince the Edgars that their son may be dangerous. Luce, however, has no intention of letting her do so.
In a film which takes in countless themes, one of the most prevalent is race, especially the notion of differences in black identity - both Wilson and Luce are black, but Luce is also an immigrant with a vastly different frame of socio-political reference. Sure, he has experienced great hardships, but since arriving in the US, he's been relatively sheltered (to quote Onah, "Luce's proximity to whiteness affords him certain privileges that other black characters don't enjoy"). Wilson, for her part, is a child of the 60s, with direct experience of the Civil Rights Movement. However, perhaps because of this, she subscribes to respectability politics, seeing all black people as sharing a common bond. This is one of the things against which Luce pushes back most strongly - he disagrees that there's such a thing as a monolithic black identity, refusing to conform to Wilson's conception of what a successful black student should be. To conform to preconceived and idealised notions would be to define himself on other peoples' terms, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the very inequalities against which the Civil Rights Movement was a reaction.
And, of course, it's important not to forget that amidst all the ideological differences between Luce and Wilson, their initial conflict is a more tangible one - after writing a paper about violence, he's profiled in a way that a white student would not be. The fact that Wilson herself is black is irrelevant to this - she reads what he says about violence and she assumes he shares Fanon's sentiments, and hence could very well be dangerous. In this way, the film deconstructs the concept of the "model immigrant" - the immigrant who must prove their harmlessness and demonstrate their potential to contribute before they can be accepted by society at large. But is such a requirement of assimilation just another form of racial profiling?
One of the things the film does especially well is toy with audience expectations. Wilson, like much of society, seems to think of Luce in binary terms - he's either a bastion of what's possible in the land of dreams or he's violent and dangerous. Cinema audiences too are conditioned to think in such binaries - we want ambiguous characters such as Luce to ultimately be revealed as one thing or the other. However, Onah knows that people will scan the text to find clues to confirm this notion or that notion, and he delights in complicating that process at every turn - when a grinning Luce mentions fireworks to Wilson, is he threatening her or is it an innocent reference to the Fourth of July; when an amiable Luce meets Wilson and her drug-addict sister Rosemary (a stunning performance by Marsha Stephanie Blake
) in a supermarket, is it a coincidence or did he follow them?
I'd be remiss here if I didn't talk a little about the acting, which is universally exceptional. Just when you think you've got Luce figured out, Harrison gives a sly glance, a slight smile, a shift in body language, which completely dismantles your theory. In a part that's very, very wordy, some of Harrison's best acting concerns Luce's subtle non-verbal traits. Spencer is equally good in the role of Wilson, whom she plays as far more on the surface than Harrison's Luce. However, so too does she exhibit a degree of ambivalence - we're often not sure if she's acting out of genuine concern for the school or is instead being vindictive towards a student whose thinking she has been unable to bend to her own.
In terms of problems, the audience has to do a lot of the leg work, and it's something which will be immediately distasteful to some, especially those who demand rigid binaries and clear explanations from their narratives. Personally, I loved the inherent ambiguity, but I understand that some won't. The same is true of many of the themes, which tend to be raised in something of a phenomenological vacuum, exiting almost as hypotheticals rather than prescribed answers, and again asking the audience to connect some of the dots. More of a problem for me was that the film ran a good 20 minutes longer than necessary, with much of the dramatic tension slackening in the last act. It's also prone to repetition - seen most clearly in Peter and Amy's constant back and forths and the dialogue scenes between Luce and Wilson. The film also features a few too many issues, several of which are taken virtually nowhere. A subplot involving a possible sexual assault at a party, for example, pays lip-service to many of the tenets of #MeToo but does very little beyond that.
Nevertheless, I was impressed with Luce. What it says about the US's (in)ability to engage in meaningful dialogue regarding important socio-political topics isn't flattering, but it is compelling. Essentially a film about pressure, as exerted by parents, by schools, by teachers, by friends, by society, by oneself, it's at least partly an exposé on the bitter divisions inherent in Trump's America. It does spread itself a little thin and the ambiguity won't be to everyone's taste, but this is brave filmmaking with a lot on its mind.