Review: Luce Is an Effectively Agonizing Investigation of Racism

On the whole, the film is an unvarnished reflection of the ugliness of American attitudes toward assimilation.

Photo: Neon

Julius Onah’s agonizingly ambivalent Luce, based on co-screenwriter J.C. Lee’s play of the same name, dramatizes the thorniest of issues—racism and its legacy—without imposing on it the simplistic moral schema typical of both grand melodramas and conventional thrillers. Following a character whose every gesture may point to guilt or innocence, the film’s camera challenges—rather than reinforces—the certainty of our own interpretations, confronting us with our own presumptions in the process. The greatest challenge Luce stages for us, and the mark of the film’s boldness, is that it actually confirms many of our assumptions about its sequence of events, even as it colors them with a new interpretation, one based in a messier world than complacent liberals tend to envision.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a stand-out student and athlete living in Arlington, Virginia, the all-American black teenager glommed onto by a high school—and an entire community—eager to hold him up as an example. The film opens inside the school’s auditorium, with Luce delivering a speech whose bland odes to the familiar values of opportunity, freedom, education, future, and so forth already point to the way he’s fit himself into an impersonal mold. Implicitly, what his teachers—and even what his parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth)—want to see isn’t true exceptionalism, but a young black man efficiently parroting the dominant values of the society he’s been assimilated to.

Amy and Peter adopted Luce from Eritrea when he was seven, by which point he’d already been trained as a child soldier. In his own words, he “learned how to use a gun before he could drive a car.” This violent background partly underlies his history teacher Harriett Wilson’s (Octavia Spencer) suspicion that ostensibly good-natured Luce may be a threat, after he hands in a paper written from the perspective of French West Indian revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon. Although the assignment was to write from the point of view of a controversial historical figure, Harriett is concerned about Luce’s choice of a figure who believed in the utility of mass violence, particularly after she finds illegal fireworks in the teen’s locker.

Harriett calls Amy in for a conference about Luce’s essay and the minor explosives. At first protective of their son, Amy and Peter come to suspect that they might not know him as well as they thought. While the Fanon essay and Luce’s evasive behavior when pressed about it gradually raises Amy’s fear, Peter is rather quick to abandon his initial defense of Luce. Unspoken but evident is the willingness of everyone involved to conclude that Luce’s “dark” nature has reared its head. As Amy investigates the life she’s allowed her son to live with relative independence—uncovering Luce’s suspected involvement in the cover-up of a rumored sexual assault against his girlfriend, Stephanie (Andrea Bang)—it’s unclear whether even she’s projecting presumptions about black villainy onto her son.

Something similar may be going on with the way these characters treat Fanon’s ideas. For anyone familiar with his work, the scene in which Harriett reveals the content of Luce’s essay may be surprising. Fanon is widely known, and widely read, as the most prominent thinker of the mid-20th-century African anti-colonial struggles. The uproar over Luce’s paper has to do with Fanon’s position on violence, which was articulated in the midst of a liberation struggle; it’s an odd quirk of the film that Harriett has no problem with papers written from the perspective of Fidel Castro, a violent revolutionary, but finds Fanon censurably dangerous.

Perhaps this is part of Lee and Onah’s point: Harriett has self-colonized her mind to the extent that she perceives black revolutionary perspectives as more dangerous than Latin American communist rebellions. Averring his innocence as Harriett faces an escalating series of pranks and humiliations, Luce insists that Harriett has it out not just for him, but for anyone she perceives as not fitting perfectly into the roles she expects them to. A sticking point for Luce is Harriett’s treatment of DeShaun (Brian Bradley), a teammate on the track and field team who lost a scholarship because Harriett found weed in his locker during an arbitrary search. DeShaun failed to be an exemplary kind of black man in the way that Luce so evidently is, and Harriett punished him—and whether that has made Luce mad enough to harass his history teacher is a revelation that Onah and Lee craftily withhold.

Harriett, like society at large, expects Luce to be either a shining beacon or an irredeemable thug. Onah toys with the fact that as cinemagoers, too, our tendency is to want him to be proven either one or the other. A grinning Luce appears to threaten Harriett in verbal exchanges, through coded language or ambivalent gestures, but it’s unclear whether he’s truly villainous—and it’s likely to drive the viewer nearly as mad as it does her. At times, Luce spells out its concern with the way black men are confined by this binary a bit too obviously: In its climactic confrontation between two diametrically opposed black perspectives on survival under oppression, the script constructs its own pretty simple binary. But on the whole, it’s an unvarnished reflection of the ugliness of American attitudes toward assimilation, the desire for model minorities to become hollow embodiments of our most self-indulgent myths.

 Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang  Director: Julius Onah  Screenwriter: Julius Onah, J.C. Lee  Distributor: Neon  Running Time: 109 min  Rating: R  Year: 2019  Buy: Video

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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