More than a battle of wills between a high-school teacher and her star pupil, the movie Luce uses that familiar premise to explore the beliefs — and the fears — by which our enlightened, progressive society lives.
History and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged, single black woman, believes in preparing her students for the politically aggrieved world. She keeps posters of Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks in her classroom. When Wilson finds explosive devices in the locker of black student Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a future valedictorian, she notifies his parents, Peter and Amy (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), white liberals who adopted Luce from Eritrea.
Suspicions arise, and conflict between these four characters is intensified by Luce’s writing a term paper that justifies the use of political violence — he quotes Frantz Fanon, the Pan African philosopher and revolutionary whose books Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) influenced Algeria’s anti-colonial war. This may be the first time Fanon’s name was ever spoken in a Hollywood movie, and that surprising development signals the film’s unstable storytelling.
Nigerian-born director Julius Onah adapts the 2013 play by American JC Lee, combining the audacity of Obama-era filmmaking with the recent didacticism of politicized post-Obama theater. Every scene makes a point: The adult characters cannot live up to their own social aspirations. Wilson’s personal life is complicated by the needs of a drug-addict sister; Amy tries following the demands of #MeToo feminism; and Peter struggles with masculine marginalization. Central figure Luce (symbolized by the first image of a school locker — half-empty yet ominous) is an enigma.
But he isn’t really. The light-brown complexion, the small, round, wing-like ears, and his aggressive yet engaging manner — always sizing up whatever group or person he’s speaking to — is so familiar that it’s almost satirical. He personifies how Joe Biden described Barack Obama: “articulate and clean.” Amy and Peter changed the war orphan’s African name to destigmatize him, choosing the name “Luce” to suggest that his new life represented bringing “light” to the world. But the name Luce also suggest that the screenwriter is musing on his own identity. JC Lee wrote teleplays for the Viola Davis black feminist show How to Get Away with Murder and for HBO’s gay-lifestyle drama Looking. These works are fraught with ambiguity about specific social groups and their anxieties; Lee’s putative heroes are very often ignoble.
Obama’s enigma — the person versus the media’s adulatory image — is evoked when Luce veers into psychological mystery. As Wilson realizes the youth’s secret calculations and furtive sexuality and sees past his untarnished façade, the film resembles a wildly audacious political thriller: Wilson faces her own demoralization, as did many unfulfilled black Americans at the end of Obama’s presidency. “America puts you in a box, and it’s tight, and it’s dirty, and you can’t move!” she laments. With this role and the movie Ma, Octavia Spencer enters an unprecedented phase of black artistic skepticism. Both films verge upon ludicrous, but the talented, likable Spencer does not. She’s the film’s genuine tragic figure, the wretched of the new world order. (Luce gets particularly ridiculous when Marsha Stephanie Blake as Harriet’s sister becomes a sexy-pathetic viral Internet meme intended to both scandalize and shame.)
Because Michael B. Jordan performed the first Obama prototype in Josh Trank’s Chronicle, Harrison’s questionably charismatic glad-hander is a less impressive impersonation. Luce practices his deception with a trickster’s speech: “Without parents, we’re soldiers unprepared for the battles ahead.” It panders to the hope-and-change movement while his skeptical classmates feel burdened by Wilson’s command: “It’s your solemn duty to not be stereotypes. Be like Luce.”
We live in an era when atheism is accepted, but doubting Obama’s birth certificate and his American ambition is anathema. By mixing hagiography with a new version of The Bad Seed, Luce is a genuine oddity.