It’s been ten years since Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) adopted their son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from war-torn Eritrea, and they thought the worst was behind them. Luce has become an all-star student beloved by his community in Arlington, Virginia. He's a poster boy for 'The New American Dream'. His 'African American' teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), believes he's a symbol of black excellence that sets a positive example for his peers. But when he's assigned to write an essay in the voice of a historical twentieth-century figure, Luce turns in a paper that makes an alarming statement about political violence. Worried about how this assignment reflects upon her star pupil, Harriet searches his locker and finds something that confirms her worst fears and Luce’s stellar reputation is called into question. But is he really at fault or is Harriet Wilson preying on dangerous stereotypes?
Luce is a deeply complex and conflicted character who contains multitudes. Who's he in a nutshell, does he even know who he's? Luce is like a kid with a 'Lamborghini' who doesn't have a license to drive yet. He's incredibly smart and contains multitudes, but he's still trying to figure things out. While he outwardly projects this idealized perfect image, there's a roiling tension beneath the surface, he's trying to figure out who he's, but he's also wondering if he's selling himself out. He sees the world around him, in his school, and his community, and senses that something isn't right. This is a young man in search of himself who wants to attack the idealized versions of ourselves that we all sell, which he feels guilty of selling as well. But at the same time, he understands that he's the beneficiary of privilege gained by selling some of those same platitudes. Yet despite the privileges afforded by his proximity to whiteness through his parents, he’s still black. He still faces many of the challenges blackness brings, most obviously, he's profiled for writing a paper about violence in a way a white peer would most likely not be. Luce is a budding revolutionary. In the play, where a certain kind of abstraction works well Luce wrote about an unnamed 'Eastern European Revolutionary'. But for the movie it required a specificity that's psychological, emotional and historical.
Revolutionary movements in 'North Africa' in the 50s shaped thinking on what's necessary for the true liberation of colonized peoples. It's about the idea that violence is a cleaning force that would produce new men. And this liberation is both from imperialists oppressors and internalized imperialist thinking. This is also part of Luce’s conflict with Harriet, he's seeking to liberate himself and decolonize his mind in ways he thinks she hasn’t. So, it's important that the substance of his paper spoke to ideological values that directly related to how Luce explores his identity in America. Luce is a bit like 'Uncle Charlie' in Hitchcock's "Shadow Of A Doubt", we're not sure if he's good or evil or something in between. Everything you see with Luce and his family is an effort to tell the story from the outside in. You're on the outside initially, but as you peel away the layers of the story, you come closer and closer to seeing Luce's true nature, but never definitively. Some people will be faster than others in piecing together his reality, but that shadow of a doubt remains throughout. That's important because in life we're always going to be limited by our perceptions, and that sense of perception is so critical to understanding Luce and his surroundings. If you're to see Luce walking down the street, or watch him give a speech in an auditorium, all you would know about him is what you see.
We always bring our own personal history and assumptions and impose them on others. We pigeonhole people, and oppress them based on appearances, class, gender, and other factors, though we're seldom cognizant of the limits of our ability to understand what's in front of us. Part of the thriller component of this story is seeing those shifting perceptions in play, especially through the character of Amy. She's trying to figure out who her son is at the same time we're trying to figure out who he is, through the web of relationships he has with the people in his school. Barack Obama and Will Smith are the apotheosis of a cool, but non-threatening black masculinity. Not long-ago characters like John Prentice and Phil Huxtable gave America a vision of this non-threatening and respectable sense of black masculinity, but it's quite old-fashioned and sort of defiantly un-cool. What Will did, and what Obama was able to do in his shadow, was much different. They allowed black masculinity to stay non-threatening but also be cool and youthful and particularly with Obama, be highly intelligent. This became a counterpoint to the recent image of black masculinity that emerged with 90s hip-hop, with rappers like 'Ice Cube', 'Snoop Dogg' or 'Dr. Dre.', who were seen as oversexualized and criminal. Will Smith and Barack Obama came along and provided something new that lived between those poles and was widely embraced. So, it's an ideal template for Luce.
As Luce's mother, Amy undergoes the most dramatic shift in perception of all the characters. It's essentially the story of her awakening. Peter, Principal Dan, Harriet Wilson all have specific points of view, but Amy has a more conflicted perspective. Things happen over the course of the story and she has to decide where she ultimately stands, and what she's willing to accept and not accept as a mother and a member of this community. At the end of her journey she isn't the kind of person you necessarily want her to be. She winds up being a reflection of what we’re all capable of when we're under pressure and placed in similar situations. Luce's parents are liberal, well intentioned people whose values become tested. We know a lot of people like Amy and Peter. People who are educated, smart, privileged and profess certain liberal values. What's interesting about the story is what happens when people who look good on paper discover tension between the values they profess and having to actually live those values. For the film to work Amy and Peter have to be relatable, theyre people who believe in the kinds of things we generally want to say we believe in, but when placed in a difficult situation we find they might not have the vocabulary or experience to deal with tension in sophisticated ways. They've a degree of obliviousness as well, their good intentions become a path to a destructive place without it necessarily being rooted in some malevolent impulse.
The tension between Ms. Wilson and Luce is fascinating because they're both black people; what might have been the ultimate lifeline for Luce becomes something else. The film focuses on the generational schism between Luce and Harriet in this movie. She's a product of 'The Sixties', and civil rights, the liberal movement that was about erasing the differences between people and focusing on a language of uplift; you can see the direct line of this from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. Here's a colorblind, non-confrontational ethos of how we address issues of race, power and privilege in this country. Luce is a product of something completely different, he's saying to Harriet that if the point of that movement, and of revolution in general, was to give us the freedom to be who we want to be, then he should have the freedom to define himself entirely on his own terms. This means not having to sentimentalize himself or subscribe to a kind of respectability politics in order to be accepted or tolerated. This notion of respectability politics is still so pervasive in an older generation of 'African Americans'. Somebody like Luce, who has incredible intellectual horsepower and who's so well read and sophisticated for a 17-year-old, understands that to subscribe to this philosophy would be to imprison one's self in an even more limiting way. This is the argument Luce is having with Harriet, if we continue to play the game of having to be perfect, and fit this narrow definition of acceptability, then we're not actually making progress in being fully human. But Harriet wants him to understand that the reality of life is harsh, and as much as he may want to believe he can be anyone he wants to be, he has to be prepared for a world that may not accept that. Harriet has power over Luce abecause of her position within the school system, but Luce has power relative to Harriet because of the privilege his white family affords him. The ideological rift of who we get to be, and who truly has power and privilege to define that, is the core of the tension between them
It's easy to feel like Dan Towson (Leo Butz) is on the periphery of the story, but he represents the entire community outside of Luce's family and Harriet Wilson. He has a legitimate desire to see Luce succeed, never mind what Luce symbolizes to the community, he's the dream package; the black immigrant who also represents what a star student who goes through this system can become. Principal Dan stands for that self-congratulatory strain some of these communities can have. Certainly, and it's not all diabolical but at the same time it's complicated and some of the elements involved can have a negative effect. We've to make Principal Dan just right on the page; he couldn't come across as a monster, a dolt or a saint. You've to find a way to walk a fine line between being a little bit aloof, while you know there's a lot more going on underneath, in the person as well as the system he represents. Because of who she's, a woman, a person of color, Harriet faces certain vulnerabilities and so does her sister Rosemary (Masha Blake), who has the added complications of being poor and mentally ill. She faces vulnerabilities because of his race and class that others who engage in similar disruptive behavior don’t, while Luce’s proximity to whiteness affords him certain privileges that other black characters don't enjoy. Rosemary not punishing the character, she's a illustration of how insidious and destructive the systems of power that exist today are.
This character reveals how interrelated and overlapping factors can grant someone power in one situation while depriving them of it in another. Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) is one of the most ambiguous characters, as we see from her relationship to Luce, Harriet believes there's a symbolic burden of representation those in marginalized groups have to carry. Just like she spotlights Luce’s symbolic value of black success and of black delinquency, she also spotlights Stephanie Kim for the symbolic value she represents as a victim of abuse. But much like Luce, Stephanie rejects this reductive assessment of her personhood. Stephanie doesn’t want her traumatic experience of sexual abuse to be used to label her only as a victim in order to prove a point. The complicated and sometimes hard to comprehend ways she reacts to her attack exist in the same shades of gray as Luce and every other character in the story. Stephanie’s assault is real, but the ambiguity of her response reflects her complicated inner life and her efforts to define her own identity. In portraying those ambiguities, it's important to be honest about how the limits of our perception come into play with Stephanie, Luce and all the characters.
The other approach in raising questions is rooted in the use of language in the play and film. The story’s emphasis on language is as a means to explore how it can be utilized as an instrument of power and privilege. In well meaning, liberal environments there are not the same overt symbols of prejudice and supremacy. But language becomes a way to establish codes of acceptability and also to inflict psychological and emotional power on others by way of what is said and what isn’t. The ability to decide when and how issues of identity are raised and resolved and to code it in language that can be weaponized is a privilege reserved for those in positions of dominance. Letting the characters engage in the seemingly simple act of talking is essential to dramatize how language plays a critical role in the wielding of power. Arlington, Virginia, it's distinctively suburban, but it's also a melting pot. 'South Arlington' has a big immigrant population, mostly 'Salvadoran' and 'Bolivian', and while it's not actively segregated, it's divided by real estate values. Arlington has progressive ideals that run up against internalized prejudices that people either aren't aware of or refuse to acknowledge. There's a reference to 'black white' in the movie, someone who's really black versus someone who's black but accepted among whites.
Adapted from JC Lee’s play 'The Standards', the film skillfully stretches the epidermal pores of 'The American Dream' to emit the unseemly elements seething beneath it's surface. It's about a kid from 'Long Island' who cheated on 'The SATs'. The play was produced in 'The Obama Era'. It's created around blackness and black identity and how it played out between a woman who's 'African American', who's born and raised in this country and a kid who's an immigrant from Africa. It's about the notion of being an outsider. If you an 'African American', you've this whole history thrust on you that's something entirely organic to who you're than the color of your skin. The film envisions a different beast in 'The Trump Era'. Between the play and the movie things changed. 'Black Lives Matter' emerged, 'The Me Too' movement broke out. These events are happening parallel to the development process and touches on elements of the script. The original play consisted of five characters and two settings; so the film shows more of Luce’s world in Arlington to ground it and bring it to life. That said the play already has the architecture of a thriller so the movie, adapts it in a way that feels organic to JC's original storytelling but shifted some of the ideas into a more cinematic space. It's never a case of superimposing beats onto the existing story in order to gin up the action. Everything in the movie comes organically from the decisions and beliefs of the characters.
Despite how different we're on some levels, we've a similar sensibility when it comes to explore ideas and issues. Neither of us want to tell stories that are prescriptive or didactic in how they explore complex social issues. The film wants to ask people to consider their blind spots, and to recognize their experience of the world will never be identical with anyone else's. The questions of power and privilege are clearly central to the film. One of the key concerns with "Luce", and intertwined with exploring identity, is exploring power, who has it, who doesn’t, and how our institutions uphold the rigid systems of power that disadvantage certain demographics. So much of the dialogue in our culture right now is about confronting systems of power that disenfranchise women, 'The LGBTQIA' community, people of color, people with disabilities and a myriad of other marginalized groups. "Luce" explores how life can be experienced by those on the receiving end of exploitative and unfair power dynamics. Elegant and energetic, "Luce" is a complex and psychological thriller about trust, privilege, and the human need to categorize the world as we see it. The film creates an intense, multi-layered and deeply entertaining look at identity in today’s America.
"Luce" represents the best and worst of black identity. He’s got this effortless brilliance and charm, is a great speaker, and a talented athlete. But at the same time, he has a history of violence as a child soldier. His story is very complicated. There’s a segment of 'The African American Community' that feels it's important that stories that come out dealing with black identity must be aspirational, they should convey a positive message and lift up the race. It's understandable why so many of us seek stories of wish-fulfillment and uplift after a long history of being marginalized, objectified and criminalized in popular culture. But the challenge comes when confronting the systemic conditions that oppress many groups. The catharsis of wish-fulfillment can often distract from the reality so many actually face and allow systems of power imbalance to go without being confronted or interrogated. It absolves those who hold power from having to reflect on their role in contributing to the marginalization of others. This happens on every level; class, gender, sexuality, race and more. If those systems of power are not truly confronted or interrogated, how can they be dismantled? Without tension, without conflict, and without ambiguity in the stories and characters, it’s very difficult to discover how to move forward.
As Americans we seem unable to discuss in a forthright way the things that make us uncomfortable, or the things that terrify us, without sentimentalizing them or reducing them to their most symbolic value. If our stories only pacify us, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. The film gives people an opportunity to reflect and ask questions. Whatever they feel about the movie is theirs to feel, it's more about the opportunity to reflect upon and engage with ideas. It challenges them to stand outside of their own experience and 'POV' and forces them to ask how they're participating in the way privilege and power operates in this country and in our world.