Brett Pardy reviews Luce, a provocative and ambiguous high school-set thriller about race and identity.
Luce, directed by Julius Onah and adapted from the play by J.C. Lee, begins with an intriguing confrontation. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr), adopted by white parents from Eritrea as a seven-year-old, is a model student at a predominantly white suburban high school. However, his social studies teacher, Harriet (Octavia Spencer), calls in Luce’s adoptive mother Amy (Naomi Watts) to discuss her disturbance at Luce’s recent essay. Students were asked to take on the perspective of a historical figure and Luce selected decolonization philosopher Frantz Fanon. Fanon is one of the most influential critical theorists of the 20th century, but Harriet reductively characterizes him as someone who wanted to use violence against the people he disagreed with.
As an audience, we never get to hear any part of the actual essay, so it is unclear if this is Harriet’s or Luce’s interpretation of Fanon. This confrontation sets up what initially appears to be the film’s core question — are the liberal respectability politics, endorsed by both Harriet and Luce’s white parents, Luce’s best hope for the future? Or is Luce right in his contention that more radical politics (exemplified by Fanon) are necessary for him to exist beyond being a symbol of hard work and resilience for others. He states that he is tired of Harriet seeing him and his other minoritized classmates as “symbols that confirm her worldview.”
Unfortunately, Luce is not satisfied with its initial question about liberal respectability versus radical politics. It becomes more interested in sowing seeds of doubt about which characters we can trust. Harriet uses Luce’s essay as an excuse to search his locker for weapons, where she finds fireworks she claims could be used as explosives.
Harrison Jr’s standout performance shows us how Luce has learned to perform the role of model minority, even as we wonder in certain moments if he harbours a dark side. However, what makes Harrison Jr’s performance so good is also why the film fails. Luce begins by asking questions about race and social expectations that have no definitive answers, but that actually make the audience think. But the film quickly abandons that setup to instead ask questions about plot events that should have definitive answers. We’re made to question if Luce sexually assaulted his ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), if Stephanie is lying about the sexual assault as part of Luce’s complicated plan to get Harriet fired, or even if this complicated plan doesn’t actually exist at all.
At one point, Luce laments, “I only get to be a saint or a monster”, but the film’s problem is that it is ultimately asking us to make this very judgement. The film’s plot only gives us two options: either Luce has sociopathically manipulated everyone around him to get a teacher he does not like fired, or Harriet has smeared the image of a student she does not like because he doesn’t fit her respectability politics. While the film does not quite tell us the answer, either choice feels overly contrived, and both are a distraction from the initial question about how a black exceptional student navigates America’s liberal enclaves.