I’m going to be honest: I didn’t know a single thing about director Julius Onah’s Luce before I stumbled into its Sundance premiere at the Library Centre Theater. I didn’t know Octavia Spencer would give the best performance of her career, didn’t fathom Naomi Watts would return to form, didn’t see Tim Roth providing an unhinged turn — and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the impenetrable, yet gripping acting of Kelvin Harrison Jr. In short, I couldn’t have known Luce would be the best film of Sundance — but I’m so happy I stumbled into that theater and witnessed one of the most searing and honest examinations of race, tokenism, and the “Exceptional Negro trope” in recent memory.
Onah’s film, adapted from J.C. Lee’s play, opens with the title character orating a speech to his classmates. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is intelligent and articulate. Some of his teachers might use the backwards term, “a credit to his race” to describe him. The apple of everyone’s eye, he’s the exceptional student, the exceptional negro.
However, his “facade” begins to crumble as his teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) receives a disturbing and violent essay from him. An African refugee from a war-torn land, Luce was adopted by Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts). Their trust in him — as the film progresses — is put to the test as more-and-more unexplained and violent incidents occur.
Lee and Onah’s screenplay acts as a discussion piece, examining rape, prejudice, vigilantism, and mental illness. Broken and hardened characters like Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) — who’s recovering from a traumatic event — the castaway Black-student Deshaun (Astro), and Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) — the schizophrenic sister of Ms. Wilson — appear and disappear: providing more mysteries than answers.
The film’s simplest splits appear in the family drama between Luce and his mother and father, and Luce with Ms. Wilson. The family dynamic is perilous, providing multiple instances of catharsis. While one parent is willing to cut bait with the boy they questionably adopted, the other is unabashedly in their son’s corner — believing they made a promise to protect him. Their struggle to implicitly believe their son, their struggle to totally support him is indicative of the inequities for most African-Americans. For most Black men, there is no second chance. There’s no opportunity to regain trust, once lost. No benefit of the doubt. Black men must be perfect, or suffer the consequences. No amount of prior good deeds will be remembered if there is one slip-up. Luce is shaken and disturbed by this lopsided deal, and his uncertainty of how to confront this cold truth consumes him for much of the film.
Coincidentally, Onah is the prime example of why POC and Female directors should be given as many chances as their White counterparts. In years past, Onah would have been summarily forgotten and ignored when he released a critical bomb like The Cloverfield Paradox. Instead, this follow-up exceeds the former in almost comical fashion.
In Onah’s follow-up, both Tim Roth and Naomi Watts deliver incredible performances as Luce’s conflicted parents. Watts’ ability to switch from understated love to unhinged confusion and fear is a reminder of how good she can be when given the right material. Roth plays to the same extremes just as well, in his best role since Selma.
But it’s Octavia Spencer — in this stoic, yet unstable role — who provides us with something we haven’t seen, particularly from her. Spencer has typically been confined to the “supportive best friend” role; whether that’s The Help, Hidden Figures, or The Shape of Water. There’s always been a retro and familiar sheen to her performances. Though she’s played real-life figures before, Ms. Wilson feels like the most realistic role she’s ever had. Ms. Wilson’s tit-for-tat feud with Luce — a bitterness toward each other whose origins isn’t altogether obvious at first — gives Spencer some of the best scenes of her career. There’s an ambiguity in her character — much like the other figures in Luce — which provides the Oscar-winning actress with jaw-dropping moment after jaw-dropping moment. One scene in particular finds her character confronting her sister, for a painful and unvarnished performance that should guarantee her another Oscar nomination.
There’s a near horror quality to Onah’s Luce. The film’s unease partly springs from Harrison Jr’s maniacally quiet performance. Onah demonstrates tremendous confidence in his young actor to push a visualization of the character, appearing to some as baiting, that is meant to be provocative. The White adults around Luce want to believe so much that their “exceptional negro” is really exceptional, that for the most part, they ignore clear and obvious signs.
The film’s horror — and near thriller quality — is also driven by Onah’s decision to shoot on 35mm. The use of film appears to have been a happy accident, as Onah shoots everything on 35mm. Here, the graininess of the wide-angled screen provides an added dimension to Onah’s low-lighted film.
Luce is such a provocative discussion starter that when it’s in wide release, there will be reams and pages of critical analysis about it. The film’s chaotic and poignant conclusion will have audiences tracing back into the recesses of their minds for ways they have leaned on the exceptional negro trope, for how often —unbeknownst to them — they’ve participated in tokenism. But mostly, it’ll make you thankful that Onah’s fraught meditation on race and gender exists.