A Dynamic Thriller That Tackles the American Dream
DIRECTED BY JULIUS ONAH/2019
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr, in a star-making role), is given the opportunity of a lifetime in the movie Luce. Born in Africa and pulled out of a war-torn country at age seven by his white savior parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), he is brought to the States and given a chance at living a life of peace and happiness. He is given the chance to be an American citizen, to gain all the benefits of America and to full embrace the American Dream. Unfortunately, one thing gets in his way.
Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, who is dynamic), plays his history teacher, who both roots for him and is suspicious of his every move. According to Luce, she both favors and singles out minorities. No person of color can be a regular student, who has deeper qualities that unites or separates him or her from other students. All people of color are their past to her; their stories of how they got to where they are today. They are also walking trigger warnings to her. He is made to feel, as he says in one scene, either a sinner or a monster.
Harriet assigns a paper to all her students to write in the voice of a historical figure, and when Luce decides to write in the voice of a revolutionary leader who spoke about violence as a means to an end, it sets off her red flags. She overreacts and searches his locker. She finds fireworks and then alerts Luce’s parents. The film seems to clearly say, up to this point, she has overstepped her boundaries.
But after that, it’s up for interpretation of who is right or wrong. Harrison plays Luce on a line that barely cuts between a mastermind who will not be defeated and a complete psychopath. Was Harriet right about Luce the whole time, or did she push too hard and awaken a monster inside of him?
Yet Luce is able to tiptoe the line and not go too far. His threats are veiled, his actions are manipulative, and his aliases always cover his whereabouts. His parents, along with the audience, try to figure out if they need to protect their son from a monster or if they did, indeed, raise a monster.
Luce is an absolutely fascinating film adapted from a play of the same name by writer J.C. Lee and directed by Julius Onah, who previously directed Cloverfield Paradox (yikes). But this time he knocks it out of the park. Onah stays out of the way most of the time, until it is time to bring the visual flares in, like a scene late in the film in a school hallway and he enacts some 360 camerawork that makes it my favorite shot so far this year.
The movie ended with me unsure how I felt about each character. It felt like a real-life event, where you reevaluate it in your mind, trying to understand who exactly was right or wrong.
In Luce, every character displays the American dream and the American nightmare. Every character is more than their appearance and more than the color of their skin. They aren’t the box you put them in, they aren’t the stereotypes you apply to them and they aren’t the success stories you need to feel good about yourself. They are all simply humans.
And that’s the problem