Black identity is a topic that has been addressed in film for many decades and more frequently over the last few years. But none quite touched upon the complicated nature of the challenging dualities of aspiration and reality on screen such as Julius Onah’s LUCE. Adapted from JC Lee’s play, this masterful social thriller confronts black identity, privilege, power, and perception in ways that asks audiences to question their own opinions and experiences regarding these concepts.
The story follows 17-year-old Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr., It Comes At Night), former war-torn child soldier of Eritrea, Africa, debate-team captain and star athlete to a suburban Virginia high school at which he struggles to embrace his idealized image. Raised by his loving, adoptive white parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), Luce’s perfect persona is challenged when his teacher, Mrs. Wilson, discovers alarming political views in an assigned essay. Tensions are conjured once Mrs. Wilson confronts his parents, provoking an unsettling discussion of identity politics and unleashing a side of Luce that will prove to be worrisome for all.
Lee and Onah’s impressive script is an intelligent take on black identity & liberation through its titular character. When the audience is first introduced to Luce, he is delivering a speech at a high school ceremony. He comes off as intelligent, charming, and positive – essentially, the perfect student; but is it all for show? No, not really. Luce is forced to live on the pedestal on which his parents, peers and teachers put him, but he certainly possesses those qualities. At the same time, however, he struggles with accepting that idealized version of himself and aims to escape from this restricted identity box. Simultaneously, the competing forces of privilege and being profiled soon begin to take its toll on Luce, which ironically leads him down a destructive path of abusing his own privilege. Stricken with the guilt of selling his perfect disposition while his peers suffer the consequences of being young and black, Luce begins to act out on his frustrations.
The greatest theme that LUCE explores is being torn between living up to the standard society holds against young minorities versus defining one’s own character and forging one’s own path. It’s a concept that is especially prevalent among minorities in our society when considering respectability politics. If you’re well-spoken and educated, you’re the ideal minority citizen and representative of what all minorities should aim to be. But embracing urban culture, using slang or “partying” is frowned upon and will only associate you as someone undeserving of acceptability. It’s the familiar case of black triumph vs. black delinquency; but what happened to ignoring labels, disbanding this narrow sense of approval and just being human? Truth is, America never truly embraced these beliefs, and that is what LUCE’s screenplay aims to showcase.
This is the kind of heavy discourse that is elegantly revealed throughout Lee and Onah’s screenplay, but it doesn’t end there. LUCE maximizes the importance of discussing intention and execution in regards to alliance, akin to an examination of “liberal” values and the people who proclaim to uphold them. Take Luce’s adoptive parents, for example: they are model citizens – educated, wealthy, and they possess great family values. Amy and Peter raised Luce to do the same. They freed him of his violent past and provided him opportunities to become the best version of himself, but they are not without their faults. Luce’s parents have good intentions but neglect to uphold their principles and provide true parenting and alliance to Luce when it truly matters. Essentially, they do everything they can to prove themselves as allies when standing their ground under pressure would have been the best thing to do morally and for Luce. And it is this broken idea of modern association and liberalism that reveals itself to be more harmful than beneficial for all parties involved.
Aside from these important issues, LUCE also tackles power dynamics and abuse, but they only strengthen Onah’s feature. These kind of inclusions make the stage play turned screenplay an exceptional body of work that will surely make audiences uncomfortable, as they will be forced to examine their own beliefs and points of view. In these moments, viewers can expect powerful monologue deliveries accompanied by beautiful shots profiling these characters at their most vulnerable thanks to Onah’s intimate direction.
As intently unsettling and intriguing as LUCE is for the entirety of its 109-minute runtime, none of its success as a project would be possible without the extraordinary performances of the cast. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is exceptional as Luce, giving an onscreen presence so charming that any growing disdain for his character will feel wrong. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Luce’s relatable parents in such a way that demands empathy, but makes us reflect on their altruistic intentions by questioning our own liberal values and the fears we have of not upholding them. Then there’s Octavia Spencer, who plays Mrs. Wilson. As the story progresses, so much is revealed of her background and why she expects so much from Luce. In that regard, Spencer gives one of the best performances of her career. Truly, this ensemble brought to life Lee and Onah’s script in a way that had people talking throughout the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and will have audiences talking throughout the 2019 film year.
Julius Onah’s use of the grand cinematic space to bring the themes of black identity, power dynamics and privilege to the big screen is remarkable. The way in which he balances his storytelling by grounding the story in realism and avoiding positive falsehoods might make audiences uncomfortable, but the best films usually do. These are the kind of topics that deserve such treatment whether we, as an audience, embrace the discomfort or not. Through Lee and Onah’s special script, viewers will be able to get a glimpse of the concept of black liberation through Luce’s quest for mental independence while burdened by the idealistic image everyone has bestowed upon him. And in doing so, the film will help us question how we fit into the larger discussions of power, privilege, and systemic abuse.