A high school student’s essay discussing radical philosopher Frantz Fanon’s belief in the necessity of violence by oppressed people raises certain eyebrows in Nigerian director Julius Onah’s (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) thought-provoking but over-determined Luce, a drama about race that challenges us to impose our own expectations on the main character. Onah says that, “Every other character in the film is imposing an expectation on who they think Luce should be, and the audience is invited to also impose their expectations.”
Based on a play by J.C. Lee, the student (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “It Comes at Night”), whose complex African name was changed to an Americanized version, was brought to the U.S. as a seven-year-old boy by his liberal-minded, adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts, “Ophelia”) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth, “The Hateful Eight”) after he had been trained as a child soldier in the East African country of Eritrea. After years of therapy, Luce has become a straight-A student, member of the debating team, and star athlete at the Arlington, Virginia high school and is held up as an example by the mostly white school administrators and teachers, an example he struggles to live up to.
As the film opens, the ingratiating Obama-like Luce delivers a speech expressing the agreed-upon values of the society into which he has been brought, but any personal connection is seemingly buried under a storm of well-meaning clichés about the value of education in determining future goals and the support he has received from his parents and teachers. According to the director, “Luce is like a kid with a sports car who doesn’t have a license to drive yet. He’s incredibly smart, but he’s still trying to figure things out.” Luce’s paper on Fanon and the “discovery” of illegal fireworks in his locker by history teacher Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”) changes the dynamic, however, and evokes the unthinkable idea that violence may be lurking behind the student’s charm and good looks.
Whether Wilson, who is also black, is overreacting based on racial stereotyping or has discovered a significant fact is left, (like numerous other threads) for the viewer to make a choice based on their own particular set of assumptions. As Luce’s credibility is called into question, even his supportive parents begin to question their son’s veracity. At a conference Harriett calls, Amy will not give any credence to the possibility that there exists a dark side to her son, but Peter is more than willing to consider the growing evidence and does not hold back his regrets that he and Amy did not have their own children.
Luce steadfastly maintains that the teacher, despite being black, has it out for him and DeShaun Meeks (Astro, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”), a track and field star who lost a scholarship because weed was found in his locker by the aforementioned teacher. To add to the growing confusion, Harriett has to deal with racist graffiti plastered on the window of her home and the trauma of her mentally ill sister having an encounter with police in a scene that should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
There is also the hint that Luce committed sexual assault against his girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang, “The Prodigal Dad”), a rumored incident that Wilson exploits in her class as an example of the #MeToo movement. While Luce is buoyed by strong performances, and Onah’s purpose to inspire self-reflection in the viewer and have them embrace the film’s ambiguity is admirable, the characters are more symbolic than real and the narrative piles on to the point where a coherent message other than — “you decide” — would have been welcome.