Julius Onah’s 2019 American film, based on a play by J.C. Lee (who wrote the screenplay with Onah), proves, if anything, that Hollywood and its lesser lights are not afraid to address thorny issues for the sake of provocation. Luce, which tackles racism, white guilt, and aspects of the #MeToo movement, will leave most people confused as to where they are expected to stand on the matters put forth, and one can feel either edified or manipulated by the results without necessarily being wrong about those feelings.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular character, a Black honors senior at a high school in Virginia who was born in a war-torn country in Africa and adopted by a middle class white couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Having been trained as a child soldier, Luce required extensive therapy after arriving in the U.S., and the success of his assimilation is apparent in his academic record. He’s a star of the school debating club, and his athletic talent has attracted the interest of many universities who are waving scholarships at him. In the classic dramatic sense, Luce is too good to be true, which is where Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) comes in.
Wilson is Luce’s history teacher, who is bothered by a paper the youngster wrote about Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary intellectual from the French West Indies. The assignment was to write from the point of view of a controversial historical figure, and Luce did just that, but the boy’s assumption of Fanon’s embrace of mass violence in his cause disturbs her—and then someone finds fireworks in Luce’s locker.
As Luce’s parents are made aware of the essay and the fireworks, which are illegal in Virginia, the audience is clued in to Luce’s darker nature, which, the film suggests, was never quite subdued by his therapy. The script develops apace in showing how seeds of doubt are planted in Amy’s and Peter’s understanding of their son’s motivations, and even his character, while Wilson becomes convinced that Luce’s exceptional behavior and attitude are all a facade. This suspicion transfers to the audience when rumors spread that Luce was somehow involved in a sexual assault on his girlfriend, Stephanie (Andrea Bang). The suspicions turn poisonous when Wilson becomes the target of anonymous pranks that rattle her to her core.
Lee’s plotting is almost too clean in that every element that points to Luce’s subterfuge is arguable from an ethical standpoint. Pitting a Black teacher against a Black student because the latter is taking advantage of white guilt is problematic, and Lee further complicates the matter by showing how Wilson once prevented another Black student from receiving a scholarship because he didn’t go the extra mile to be the exemplary Black man (i.e., in white folks’ eyes) that Luce so perfectly embodies. For sure, Luce interrogates American attitudes on race in a brutally complete fashion, but the contrivances evident in the characterizations can be infuriating. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes self-contradicting movie, and while it brings up important issues for debate, its methodology is as suspect as its subject’s veiled intentions.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
Luce home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2018 DFG Pictures Inc.