By Marc S. Sanders

In early 2022, the local theatre that I volunteer at, Carrollwood Players in Tampa, Florida, will be presenting Luce by playwright Julius Onah.  I’d never heard of this dramatic play before, and I learned that Onah wrote a screenplay adaptation with J.C. Lee.  Onah directed the film. 

Watching the film ahead of seeing the stage production left me quite surprised.  It was not what I expected.  Luce is a story that begins as what I anticipated would be an examination of social or racial injustice and evolves into a suspenseful thriller that questions those arguments.  There are four main characters to ponder what they stand for.  Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an adopted black boy from a war-torn country and now the star athlete and likely valedictorian of his high school.  Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) are his white well to do parents, and Mrs. Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is Luce’s African American history and government teacher with a fifteen-year tenure at the prestigious high school.  Over the course of the film, each character will be fleshed out with background and dimension.  Each character may also change his or her position on the main conflicts at hand, and each one of them will exercise an action of misgiving or betrayal.  So, in what seems like a perfect world of brilliant academics and success, who can we trust?

Harriet is introduced as “stern” and later confirmed by Luce and Peter as a “bitch,” but spoken humorously within the private confines of their car ride home from an evening speech event that Luce conducted at school.  Amy shames them for the characterization.  The men in her family are wrong to describe a hard-working woman in such a way, even if it is a little sarcasm among just themselves.  A day or so later, and Amy meets with Harriet because she’s disturbed by an essay that Luce wrote glorifying the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who believed that elimination by violence is a sound societal solution to his country’s problems.  The assignment was to select a historical figure and write the paper from that figure’s perspective.  Following her review of the essay which left her uneasy, Harriet takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker where she uncovers a bag of illegal fireworks.  Amy is shocked by Harriet’s actions and at first can not fathom Luce as a boy who would ever have a violent nature or want to cause harm.  Debates in the kitchen occur when she gives the run down to Peter.  Questioning confrontations with Luce and his parents occur as well.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Luce is such a model student.  He’s also a brilliant debater, and that makes it hard to get to the truth.  Is there any truth to get to at all however? Is there any justification to question him when no crime or damage has occurred and by all accounts, Luce did in fact meet the standards of the assignment?  Luce asks a good question as well. As a student, were his civil rights violated by Harriet when she took it upon herself to search his locker, under no one’s authority or approval?

All of these questions are presented early on in the film.  Afterwards, developing twists take place and the story adopts a thriller mentality to it.  Luce seems so kind and enviable.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. presents the character with a beautiful smile, who is well versed, polite and presentable.  Luce even steps in to calm down a fight among his peers.  He delivers gracious speeches.  He’s a brilliant model of the debate club and he’s a star on the track team.  He takes it upon himself to approach Harriet with a mea culpa to whatever misunderstanding may have occurred, but there’s also a disturbing subtext.  He volunteers to her that his favorite holiday is Independence Day because he appreciates its meaning when he considers the violent country he was rescued from…along with the celebratory fireworks that traditionally accompany the day.  Wilson never asked for this information, and yet Luce is telling her anyway.  Is he being sincere, or is he using this as a means to torment Harriet?

Amy becomes torn by these events.  Does she really know her son, that she eventually nurtured out of the fear of his original environment?  Does it make sense for Amy to hide the paper and fireworks that Harriet gave to her with trust that she’ll address these allegations with her son and husband?  Did Peter really want to adopt this boy, when he and his wife could have easily had a child on their own, thereby avoiding the challenges of raising a child of a different race, from a war-torn country?

As a white, middle class, Jewish American male, I don’t think I’m any wiser on the plights that people of other races have endured following my experience with Onah’s film and screenplay. I thought I might have been early on in the film, but then the film seems to divert to the wise mechanics of how any one of us can be sinister, either for our own satisfaction or to prove a point, or to protect a loved one, or to mask our own foolish blindness.  Onah deliberately leaves threads of his story ambiguous, and I appreciate that.  I always like to think and ponder a film or a play or book, with its characters, long after it’s over and Luce is a perfect opportunity. 

There are surprising moments in Luce.  Just when you think you have one of these four characters figured out, something happens that forces you to take two steps back and start over.  I’ll credit Onah’s story for that, but also the impeccable casting here.  Octavia Spencer is such a great actor.  She’s awarded a character here with much background that is challenging and lends to why the other players in the story have a right to question her actions.  Watts is given more material to play with than Roth.  Typically, I’d argue that mothers bear the weight of affection towards a child more than a father and so more opportunities present themselves here for Watts to turn Amy into an unsure, but loving mother. It’s ironic, but as I watching this film, I couldn’t help but parallel some of the themes with the play/film Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, which also ends with much uncertainty.  Amy certainly becomes more of a character plagued with internal doubt as the story progresses here.  Tim Roth is maybe given the least amount of dimension here, but he embodies the wishy-washy nature of not really knowing what’s true and what isn’t.  Roth portrays the guy like he doesn’t know whose side he’s on anymore, and he just wants to cut through the bullshit.  Harrison needs to become a more established actor in today’s mediums of streaming and cinema.  He’s brilliant at playing one face while keeping me guessing whether he’s playing another face as well.  By far, this was the most important role to cast in this film, and the production got the right guy for the part.  Side note: after watching the film it was interesting to see what his character’s name could potentially stand for.  Don’t read anything ahead of the film.  Check out the trivia notes on IMDb afterwards. 

You may expect to have a discussion on what Luce was trying to say.  I don’t think it bears overthinking from a societal perspective, really.  If Julius Onah were to hear me say this, or read this publication, he might be disappointed to know that.  Rather, I think it’s better to piece together how all of the surprises came to be.  Regardless, Luce is terrific dramatic entertainment with superb and nuanced performances, and heightened suspense from its toe the line direction and the entire cast.

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