It is a given that expectations can be a double-edged sword. Yet what can be ambiguous is how those expectations are wielded. When someone is stereotyped to fail the menace is self-evident, but what if they are stereotyped to succeed, and what if those preconceived notions prove as much a filter as an aspiration? Such is the incredibly difficult conversation that Luce broaches in its taut running time. While it errs under two hours, its impact haunts long after the credits roll.
A drama about a tinderbox of good intentions, and the spark that threatens to bring it all down, Luce is the story of its namesake, an all-star high school student who administrators and peers alike compare to Obama, although some without the irony. In actuality, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a brilliant young man all his own, the valedictorian of his school, a popular athlete, and the person that his most skeptical teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) expects, even needs, to do amazing things. This is all a feather in the cap of his parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted Luce from Africa after a troubled childhood defined by seven years of hell. He held a gun before he ever touched a calculator.
The poster boy of the American Dream, he seems to have it all, which makes Ms. Wilson discovering illegal fireworks in his locker so disquieting. She felt the urge to search it after she requested students to assume the voice and rhetoric of a historic figure, and he turned in a paper that seemingly advocated violence. But his mother appears right in her skepticism when she is summoned into an off-the-books parent-teacher conference about how they should address this… or perhaps cover it up. What both women seem to be missing in this equation is that Luce—a young man whose name was created by his parents because they could not pronounce his original one—actually has strong opinions of his own on the matter. Not that Ms. Wilson would probably like to know, as she’s ruined the academic careers of other black students, and friends of Luce, for less.
One of the most probing films I’ve seen in 2019, Luce is a masterclass of theatrical adaptation. Working from his own play, J.C. Lee transfers the drama from stage to screen so seamlessly that it was not until it was over that I realized it was anything approaching stagebound. Rather this is a powerful piece of cinema that is acutely intelligent in its mounting tension, taking on the propulsion of a thriller even as it never actually reaches for anything so melodramatic. Rather this is a character piece in which preconceived notions and well-meaning characters implicitly and then explicitly push their worldviews into direct conflict. By turning an American high school into a Rorschach Test of 21st century politics, Lee and director Julius Onah compel viewers to consider the complexities of racial biases in American life, including from those who outwardly resist having any.
Becoming a parable about the doubt, or maybe just denial, white parents Amy and Peter can have over their own son, as well as the conflicted hurdles placed before the African-American experience, including by other people of color who are living it, Luce constantly asks viewers to both reexamine their relationship with these characters and their own personal biases. This is achieved in no small part due to the talent of the whole ensemble. Watts in particular shines as a mother who has always put her love for her son above herself, and continues to do so even when he gives her express reasons to second guess it, right down to midway through the film pushing her away and calling her “Amy” instead of Mom.
Still, the heart of the film is the tension between instructor and pupil, Ms. Wilson and Luce. Harrison is superbly confident and charismatic in his all-American normalcy, but given Luce literally had to learn what “American” means (he has a fascinating monologue about only learning of holidays at the age of eight), the fact that his nature is a learned behavior escapes everyone except his least favorite teacher.
Hence when he attempts to provoke Ms. Wilson in a high-minded debate prep, the give-and-take between him and Spencer is not dissimilar to the potential violence populating the space between a drill sergeant and an unconvinced recruit. She is trying to cast him in her own image of what being a black American should be, and his resentment walks the line between justified and terrifying in its duplicity. The pair’s third act confrontation is as explosive as any illegal fireworks, with Spencer savoring the best material she’s had in years.
All of this is conveyed by Onah and Harrison as something of a poker game where the whole film is guarding their cards, and Luce’s true reaction to the pressure, a hair’s breadth away from their chest. When they eventually reveal their hand, and Luce truly speaks his mind, it is not nearly as satisfying as the build-up, which keeps viewers on edge while composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury musically twist the knife. Nevertheless, the questions Luce raise more than make up for a resolution that must concede there are no easy answers to the mystery of race in America, even in its most enlightened enclaves. But at a time where media chases safe, digestible solutions that satisfy the intersection of corporate checklists and social media platitudes, running toward an unknown destination gives Luce a searing immediacy. We follow close behind, certain in our confusion that this direction is right.