- Film & TV
- 21 Nov 19
Suspenseful exploration of racism
Luce begins with a provocation – and indeed the film is one itself. Star high school student Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., excellent but at least five years too old for the role) is beloved by parents Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts), who adopted Luce from Eritrea when he was seven. He was raised as a child soldier, making his outstanding social and academic success even more remarkable – or perhaps, even more demanded by his affluent, white suburban community.
When his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) receives an assignment from Luce that argues that violence is justified to prevent colonialism, she is disturbed. Her discomfort is heightened when she finds illegal fireworks in Luce’s locker. Harriet warns Amy that a black student with Luce’s background cannot afford to be associated with violence. But is Harriet trying to protect Luce from stereotypes, or is she perpetuating them herself?
Luce asks necessarily troubling and thought-provoking questions about race, privilege, trust, and the oppressive demands of respectability placed on black people trying to succeed in predominantly white institutions and communities. Harrison Jr. is compelling, capturing the exhaustion of a teenager who feels constant pressure to be perfect. What happens when you’re not allowed to be a human, but an example?
Director Julius Onah helped writer JC Lee adapt the script from Lee’s play, and the tense, knotty, suspenseful drama shows its theatrical roots. Watts and Spencer have some excellent scenes, crackling with energy and unarticulated tension, but the language can feel overburdened with significance.
The screenplay often aims for ambiguity and achieves murkiness, leaving some plot and characterisation threads dangling. These distracting meanders are a shame, as it detracts from the necessary ways that we should leave Luce feeling uncomfortable.