Luce upends the Exceptional Negro trope.”

Title: Luce (2019)
Director: Julius Onah 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Julius Onah 👨🏾🇺🇸, based off the play by J.C. Lee 👨🏼🇺🇸 

Review by Robert Daniels 👨🏾🇺🇸


Technical: 5/5

Nigerian-American director Julius Onah brings us Luce, a film based upon the eponymous play from playwright and screenwriter J.C. Lee that follows a Black high school athlete as he navigates a set of serious accusations. An honors student, track star, eloquent speaker, and sharp debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an “Exceptional Negro” (more on that later). Adopted by Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) from war-torn Eritrea as a young refugee, Luce’s unlikely success follows the mythos of the American dream—that anyone can make it.

Nevertheless, one person remains skeptical of the admiration that surrounds Luce: his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Alarmed by his essay, which was written in the voice of the pan-African revolutionary Frantz Fanon who believed in the use of violence against his white colonizers, Ms. Wilson inspects Luce’s locker. There, she uncovers dangerous and illegal fireworks that seem to confirm her suspicions about Luce’s potential dark side. Yet no one knows who put those fireworks there, least of all Luce. 

Ms. Wilson and Luce’s parents work to get to the center of this mystery, a mystery that asks viewers to consider their own racial biases and to inspect systemic discrimination. Covering other issues like mental health and rape culture, Onah’s Luce works toward an ambiguous and uneasy truth. 

Throughout the slow-burn thriller, Watts and Roth deliver career resurgent performances as Luce’s parents. Likewise, Harrison Jr. consumes the screen. In a film shot on grainy 35mm, he creates a character with opaque intentions. Dangerously unnerving, Harrison’s acting elicits a jitter in the viewer akin to watching a horror film. And often relegated to the Black friend trope, of supporting a white protagonist as seen in The Shape of Water (2017) or A Kid Like Jake (2018), Spencer gives the best performance of her career in Luce. For a film that designates no clear villains, except the unequal racial system that surrounds them, Spencer’s layered interpretation of Ms. Wilson offers the nearest equivalency.         

Gender: 4.5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES Assessment: 18% of key cast and crew members were women. 

Every major woman character, refreshingly, is written as multidimensional. This includes Luce’s mother, Amy Edgar, played by Watts. Throughout the film, Amy switches between full-throated support of her son to sinking suspicion of his guilt. Regardless, she knows the precarious position of a Black man in America. And while Amy feels responsible for keeping her son safe from trouble, she still seeks out the truth. She learns early on that Luce holds a deep dislike of Ms. Wilson, a stance that we later find out has roots in the teacher’s treatment of Luce’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). In pursuit of deeper understanding, Amy reaches out to Stephanie and sets up a coffee chat.    

Stephanie tells her about a house party where she was sexually assaulted by teenage boys during a disturbing game. The game, called “the Santa Claus,” asks a girl to take turns sitting on men’s laps. Depending on how much they like her, the men rate her 1 through 3—“ho, ho, ho,” as it goes. When Amy’s horror at the anecdote registers, Stephanie quickly says defensively, “There are worse games.” Her reaction points to the pervasiveness of rape culture, where even women have learned to excuse it. 

Adding to the mystery of Luce, Stephanie’s memory, as with many who experience a traumatic event, seems murky. Even so, her recounting of events offers no less of a harrowing and heartbreaking moment—especially as Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s piercing synth score heightens the tension in the scene, and throughout the film overall. Whether Luce participated in this crime becomes the stuff of ambiguity. Amy asks, and Stephanie swears he wouldn’t, but can we completely know? Lee and Onah would rather not offer simple answers. In any case, irrespective of Stephanie’s feelings, Ms. Wilson passive-aggressively uses her in class as an example of someone who should speak up in the face of injustice. 

Regardless, Onah’s film doesn’t portray Spencer’s Ms. Wilson as the villain. An intelligent Black woman, a teacher for what appears to be an all-white school staff, and sister to a patient suffering from a psychological disorder, Onah and Lee’s script gives her heaps of empathy. For instance, in a car ride home Amy refers to Ms. Wilson as “stern.” When her husband Peter chimes in that “stern” usually means “bitch,” Amy chastises him. She points out how the gendering of “stern” stems from men incapable of understanding the multiple hurdles successful women must jump to attain their positions of power. 

In fact, the women at the center of Luce are more than simply multidimensional. Each woman demonstrates an awareness of the other’s plight and the struggles women face in general. 

Race: 5/5 Assessment: 54% of key cast and crew members were POC.

In its strongest commentary on race, Luce upends the Exceptional Negro trope. Traced back to Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946), the trope describes Black people who are “different” and “better” than their brethren. Typically, this Black person lacks the prototypical definitions of Blackness as defined by a racist white society—highly educated and articulate, and tokens among their usually white friends. In one scene, Luce’s white friend Orlicki (Noah Gaynor) says, “You’re not Black, you’re Luce.” Their success exists within a vacuum, while issues of systemic racism are not addressed when explaining why other Black people haven’t found the same prosperity. In most cases, the Exceptional Negro plays patsy to their white counterparts—existing only to fulfill their aspirations. 

In establishing Luce as someone who has been forced into this trope, Onah demonstrates the vast advantages the teenager holds, from his trustworthy reputation with his white principal to the very fact of his adoption from a war-torn country. One example of Luce’s exceptional fortune involves the deliberate contrast with DeShaun Meeks (Astro), also a track star...well, formerly. Prior to the film’s events, Ms. Wilson searched DeShaun’s locker and found weed, which caused him to lose his college scholarship. Without a team, without a scholarship, and without his former friends, DeShaun appears throughout Luce as a broken man. He begins hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” and it immediately becomes clear that this young, Black, and—unlike Luce, dark-skinned—teen is in danger. Without the hope of going to college, DeShaun will be forced to depend upon a system that’s unlikely to hire Black men without a degree, and where the earning potential for Blacks without a college degree is vastly lower. In recognizing the unfair way DeShaun has been treated, Luce wants to upend the system, hoping to use his intelligence and his unsuspecting nature as the Exceptional Negro to enact revenge against Ms. Wilson for her biased actions against him, Stephanie, and DeShaun.  

But before Luce can enact his plan, he must keep the support of his parents. Both Peter and Amy must answer a central question: What limits are there to love? They fight over whether adopting Luce was the right decision and think back on the work it took to gain his trust. Amy recounts how she would coax him from under the bed. Yet the Edgars are also an example of cultural erasure, and of white savior syndrome. When they couldn’t pronounce their son’s actual name, they simply gave him a new one. 

To our knowledge, Luce doesn’t recall much from his past. He struggles through much of the film to regain a cohesive cultural identity, which one suspects is the reason he chose to write as Frantz Fanon, and to rebel against the perception of himself as an Exceptional Negro in the eyes of his adopted country. When that perception fades for his parents, they must decide if they truly love their troubled immigrant Black child as their son, or if they were only in love with the idea of him.

The thriller culminates in a battle of personalities demonstrating each character’s respective strengths, yet showing that a racist system that makes everyone suffer. Ms. Wilson is the kingmaker, picking winners and losers. Luce—the master manipulator. And while Luce wants to only be seen as himself, not the Exceptional Negro, Ms. Wilson breaks the hard truth to him: He’ll always be Black to white America. His identity can never be chosen. 

Bonus for Disability: +1.00  

As if Onah and Lee's thriller couldn't be more multilayered, one of the film’s minor characters includes Ms. Wilson’s sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Suffering from an undisclosed mental disorder, Rosemary requires round-the-clock care. Blake plays Rosemary with a light touch, funny and endearing. The warm scenes between her and Ms. Wilson, like shopping at the supermarket or joking over breakfast together, add empathy to Spencer’s character. 

Nevertheless, when Ms. Wilson’s sister becomes too much to handle—in one scene Rosemary tears a kitchen apart because she can’t find an ingredient—she takes her back to psychiatric care. Rosemary later escapes to confront Ms. Wilson at her school, stripping naked in front of a horrified yet fascinated student body as she pleads for her sister. 

And when the police enter the school, we’re given an affecting intersection of the rights for those with mental disabilities and non-violent Black suspects at the hands of authoritarian figures. When the police unnecessarily escalate the situation, shoving a taser into Rosemary’s naked body, she goes limp, the fight drained from her.

Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.17/5

Onah’s Luce asks tough questions of its audience, with the prospect for harsher answers. A dark high school drama, the story covers topics of the Exceptional Negro, discrimination, and women’s issues. It works as a cinematic think piece, where there are no villains except a system that defines Black identity through a white lens; which pits people of color against one another in a fight for survival; and which casts aspersions on the validity of a victim’s testimony. No one in Luce is any one thing at once, a nuanced reflection of reality despite our current social climate that seeks to put people in tidy boxes.

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