What happens when a model student’s seemingly charmed life falls into jeopardy? Who will come to his aid and who will search for the truth? These questions are the premise for director Julius Onah’s Luce.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a successful young black man. Top of his class in school, a track star and the apple of his parents’ eye. Adopted from Eritrea, his mother Amy (Naomi Watts) and father Peter (Tim Roth) have worked to erase the trauma of their son’s homeland, and they’ve done a stellar job. Luce is adored by his principal, but his black history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), isn’t exactly convinced he’s as perfect as everyone thinks he is. When Harriet calls Amy to discuss a disturbing essay Luce has written, a strange web of deceit, lies and troubling circumstances come to light. One that will challenge everyone involved and their beliefs.
Luce is a complex tale that is rich in themes and emotion. Race and class are pivotal to the film as Luce navigates between his white and black friends; both charmed by his diplomatic ways and the ease with which he transitions in between worlds. His job, however, is not easy – he must represent his parents hard work as a rehabilitated child of war; be the cool black friend, but not too black; and be the bridge for his “really black” black friends to the white world. Harriet is the only person who questions what is behind his perfect façade, and she will risk her reputation to explore the truth.
A richly layered film, Luce soars thanks to it sensational performances. Both Watts and Roth, who also played parents together in Michael Haneke’s English remake of his film Funny Games, play Luce’s doting, bleeding heart liberal parents with the ease of seasoned actors who know their craft. Harrison Jr. is enthralling as the gleaming picture of youth, but also conveys vulnerability, skewed ideologies and a slight unhinged vibe that comes through more and more as the film progresses. He portrays Luce as a product of his environment, raising disturbing social commentary regarding nature vs nurture. As for Spencer, she is just amazing, plain and simple. Her portrayal of Harriet is an essential part of this modern morality play and one that will stay with you for a long time, especially if you’re a black woman.
Onah directed The Cloverfield Paradox which was not well-received, but Luce shows his skill with drama. Adapting the play by J.C. Lee, writer and producer of several episodes of How to Get Away with Murder and Looking, Onah is able to pull nuance from his actors. He also uses subtly muted lighting, punctuated by a throbbing score by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his co-composer Ben Salisbury, to create an effective mood. My only issue with the film is the portrayal of Harriet’s mentally ill sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has a climatic moment in the film that involved unnecessary nudity. It may have signified the objectification and mistreatment of black women, but it was too much considering the context of the film.
Luce will bring up a lot of questions about how society treats race, class, and the relationships between black men and black women. You may love it, you may hate it, but it’s a film you have to see.