Luce: Lighting It Up at Sundance

February 27, 2019
Unlike a certain Oscar winner, a new film starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. does not offer any easy answers to race relations.

The first frame of Luce, a new film by director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox), is a camera pan of a row of high school lockers. Why are we looking at this, apart from the graphic aesthetic? Because the lockers are a site of the secrets and lies that surround an African teenager, Luce, who carries so many people’s hopes and dreams. Perhaps it’s because the story was originally worked as a play before going through another envisioning for cinema, but the developed layers of thinking and meaning that drive the narrative of this film pack a terrific punch.

Luce, played with great emotional range by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Monster, Birth of a Nation, The Wolf Hour, also at Sundance) is a former child soldier from war torn Eritrea who has been adopted by middle class American parents. After careful nurturing and years of therapy, Luce has become a poster boy of rehabilitation and success. There are shades of a young Barack Obama in Luce’s accomplished and articulate speech day address in which he gives credit to his parents, his teachers and the opportunities he has been given. It’s the western world’s philanthropic dream where the colonised people of the world can be rescued and rehabilitated and we all get to feel good about ourselves.

Actors Naomi Watts, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer and director Julius Onah attends the World Premiere of Luce at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess

Cracks appear when there are hints of Luce’s disturbing views on violence, but they are quickly buried under his golden boy status of star athlete and top student. No one wants to consider he may be a ticking time bomb or less than the perfectly adapted success story, except one of his teachers, in a poignant complex performance by Octavia Spencer. Spencer’s character seems the most truthful except she also has an agenda. She is hard on Luce because as she sees it, so few black kids can break through and succeed. “We can’t mess this up,” she says.

Luce is a sophisticated film that refuses to draw black and white conclusions. Rather, it pushes back on the characters and the audience to question their own agendas and assumptions.

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the do-good parents bring their A game in the skilful cross fire of teacher and parent debate and investment in Luce’s progress. Watts is edgily skilful in her portrayal of a woman attached to the idealised image of an adopted son she feels she has rescued and rebuilt. Ironically, we hear that she struggled to pronounce the African orphan’s real name, so he was called ‘Luce’ meaning ‘light’.

Originally a play by JC Lee, Luce was adapted and reworked by Lee and Onah in tandem. They paid special attention to ensuring all four main characters had very strong and independent viewpoints.

Onah was on hand for an intense Q&A after the film’s premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Sticking to his film’s theme, he refused to be drawn on opinions about what his main character is really motivated by.

“Is Luce actually violent or dangerous? Well, that’s not an answer I’m going to give you. A big part of the appeal of the story is the way it explores perception. You know when you see anyone walking down the street you bring a whole bunch of expectations to them. You see a black person, a woman, someone Asian. Part of the question in this film is – what do we see? And are we capable of seeing past our blind spots? Those thoughts or preconceptions we have about someone starts determining how we see the world, so the answer is up to you.”

Director Julius Onah attends the World Premiere of Luce at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess.

Onah explained that he never targeted for a black or white audience specifically.

“I was writing for the audience I know and that’s a multicultural one. My father was a diplomat, so I grew up in all sorts of places. The point is we all live in a multicultural society. We’re all in it together. Power and privilege operate in a certain way in this country but because we are all inter-related it’s important to tell a story that looks at how we all engage and participate to create the systems and the culture that we live in.

“If we ask those questions, even if they take us to places that are uncomfortable or ugly or dangerous, perhaps we start to discover a truth that helps us move forward.

“It’s part of all our jobs to tell the truth but what I wanted to explore is this complicated idea of the truth. The truth is always going to change from one person’s point of view or another. I had no interest in telling a story that was going to be prescriptive or didactic.”

Describing how the film was cast, Onah said, “I tend to write with a certain actor in mind. I think Naomi Watts is brilliant. When I saw Mulholland Drive at the age of 19, I said, ‘fuck I need to work with this woman someday!’ So, when the script was ready, I sent it to her.

“Likewise, I sent it to Octavia, I thought if we could get her in a movie like this, the things she could do… Luce was the really critical and difficult part. Where could we find a kid who could go toe to toe with the heavyweights? So, I did a big casting call around the world. Little did I think it would be some kid from my own backyard. Kelvin is an incredible young actor from New Orleans. I met him for breakfast, and he was so meek I thought, ‘how is he going to do this?’ He was also asking all these questions that made it seem he was confused about the part he was going to play. Little did I know he was punking me! He was getting all the information he needed so when he sent in a tape it was instantaneous, I knew he was Luce.”

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