Film / TV

‘luce’ tackles identity politics

August 2, 2019
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After 13 big-budget installments of X-Men, we know by now that leader Charles Xavier and his ideological nemesis Magneto were conceptually based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In the 1960s, their two approaches to challenging white supremacy in the civil rights era — Black pacifism and Black militancy — set the tone for decades of liberation struggle in America. Luce, a psychological thriller from director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox), adapts a 2013 stage play about a suburban African teenager confronting questions of respectability politics and racial stereotypes, to explore another polarizing paradigm: identity politics.

Valedictorian Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shines on both the track team and the debate team, flashing an electrified smile worthy of Barack Obama or Will Smith whenever the opportunities arise. Adopted from war-torn Eritrea at age seven by Hollywood-issue white liberal parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), the overachieving golden boy politely bumps heads with his stern English teacher. Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer) shares borderline activist wisdom with the scant African-American students under her charge, and the young millennials resent it as much we might expect.

Luce finds strength in playing with ambiguities. Drama enters when Miss Wilson interprets Luce’s essay on revolutionary author Frantz Fanon as overly incendiary, coming from a native Eritrean, checks his locker, and discovers illegal high-powered fireworks. Is she trying to prevent another Columbine massacre or unfairly profiling an African student? And is Luce’s Obama-like façade authentic or just a front for another identity the film slowly teases out? Are his parents as liberal as they think they are once accusations start flying? The results slightly resemble 2011’s disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin, only substituting racial questions for horror tropes.

What the film grapples with makes its cerebral roots in theater all the more obvious. Even though Luce holds resentment against Miss Wilson for snatching his friend’s track scholarship over marijuana she finds in his locker, his real problem with her is philosophical. He sees her tracking certain students for success based on their conformance to an ultimately white value system. Through the mask of his mega-watt smile and affable attitude, as well as some realistic tears, actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. shows rather than tells the inner angst of Luce maintaining the image of a “perfect Negro.” Non-threatening, “articulate and well spoken” exemplars of the race from Sidney Poitier to Barack Obama know this anxiety, and Luce gives viewers a clearer look inside that psyche. 

The same sort of secrecy that powers every season of Queen Sugar makes Luce just as effective. We hold on, waiting for the narrative to reveal all in terms of exactly who’s guilty of what, and the ending refuses to spell everything out. We don’t need all the answers to understand that code switching and perfect Negro syndrome take their toll. Faultfinders might walk away feeling like the movie is actually all about the character arc of Luce’s mom, her awakening to walking the liberal walk she’d been talking since adopting a child out of Africa. But the real beauty of Luce lies elsewhere, in the heady territory of questioning who has the power and privilege to define how Black people are acceptably allowed to move through the world.