Luce (Julius Onah, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In Luce, director Julius Onah makes up for having afflicted The Cloverfield Paradox on us by delivering a gripping, thought-provoking cinematic essay on race, gender, colonialism, class, power and privilege (white and otherwise). Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Monsters and Men) as the titular high-school senior, adopted from war-torn Eritrea by white parents, the movie follows the misadventures of Luce, his family, friends and school teachers as they struggle to reconcile their own mythologies with real life. Naomi Watts (While We’re Young) and Tim Roth (The Padre) play the adoptive parents, joined by Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) as a teacher whose suspicions about Luce’s true nature spark a flame that rips through everyone’s optimistic expectations. No one is what they seem if the seeming is how you see them.
What price an inspiring tale? What will we sacrifice in service of the story we tell ourselves is the right one? As one classmate confronts Luce, is it worth it to raise up “one Obama” if we simultaneously cast off those who don’t measure up? Some of this might fall narratively flat if it were merely polemical, but all characters here are fully realized human beings, which makes the film, adapted from J.C. Lee’s eponymous play, a compelling exploration of the issues it raises. The people on screen may disappoint us as human beings (or not, since the script will affect viewers in different ways, I imagine), but the movie never does. Luce is first-rate drama.
I particularly admire Onah’s refusal to shy away from hard questions about race, both within and without the African-American community. The wages of centuries of oppression are not so easily wiped away by an athletically and academically gifted young man. Returning to the Obama metaphor, it is not so long ago that the United States cheered itself on for conquering its legacy of discrimination by electing its first black president. Good times … We are all in this grand experiment together, but some bear vastly different burdens than others. Life is complicated, and Luce reminds us why.