Luce spins a story of race and privilege into a tense thriller

Director Julius Onah on careful casting and using the cinematic language of horror to craft a complex and compelling film.

In Julius Onah’s Luce, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular character, a brilliant, charismatic and academically gifted high school senior who seems poised for a bright future. Luce was adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) as a child; having grown up as a child soldier in war-torn Eritrea, Luce’s upbringing is seen as a true success story, even if there were some bumps and scrapes along the way. Luce’s nature is called into question by his English teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), after he turns in an essay praising Frantz Fanon’s ideas of violent rebellion against oppressors. Despite Luce’s argument that taking Fanon’s position was the whole point of the essay, Ms. Wilson remains convinced that there’s a dark streak to Luce that no one but her is seeing.

Though it deals with heavy sociopolitical ideas of race and identity, Luce is structured and shot in a way that suggests that things could go completely off the rails at any minute. It’s a simmering, burbling thriller in sheep’s clothing that uses the cinematic language of horror films as a subversive manner of letting the audience fend for themselves.

“Everyone keeps on asking that question — is it a thriller, is it a horror movie?” laughs Onah. “On some level, it’s really refreshing. I love the fact that horror keeps coming up — that’s exciting. I certainly wanted it to be a movie that, even though it’s exploring these complex and complicated issues, also has an intentionality to it and an intensity to it that keeps you involved in watching the film.”

Luce could have been a didactic piece of Trump-era rhetoric, one that, even if you agree with it, seems a little simplistic. Onah, however, puts the onus of perception on the audience. Facts are deliberately obscured or withheld in order to let the audience make up their own minds about what they’re seeing — and, since the film is chiefly about race and privilege, it forces the audience to contend with their own uncomfortable ideas.

“It was important for us to trust the audience, and hopefully create a situation in which I’ve painted enough greys,” says Onah. “It would allow people to bring in their own experiences and hopefully use that in exploring the story. I think that when you’re dealing with these kinds of complex issues, everything is rooted in perception. When you walk down the street and you see somebody, all you have are your assumptions about who you think they are and whatever they’re presenting you in that moment. That is the nature of how most prejudice works — and the nature of how power and privilege works. There are certain people we afford access to the full spectrum of humanity and there’s others we make assumptions about and then put in a box.

“Part of the point of telling a story like this is to simply ask the question: how and when do we all participate in reinforcing the systems of power and privilege that operate in our country?” Onah continues. “To ask that question of ourselves is probably one of the healthiest things to do at a time when we are all so contentious and so many of us seem to think that we have the pre-eminent truth or that our truth is the one and only truth. There’s almost a kind of arrogance from people who dismiss these kinds of questions, because none of us are immune from unconscious biases.”

Though hardly autobiographical, Luce shares certain personal traits with Onah. A Nigerian-American, Onah grew up in Arlington, Virginia (where the film was shot) and was also a high-school debater. 

“It was important for it to be a world that I knew, so I could come up with that kind of authenticity,” he says. “But also, Arlington is a very specific and unique microcosm of the kind of issues that the story is exploring in terms of the way it’s structured racially, in the way it’s structured class-wise and contains a number of different demographics.”  

Much of Luce also depends on casting — not only of actors’ talents, but of who exactly they are. Luce would play tremendously differently if the character who suspects Luce of having nefarious motives were white — and it would play extremely differently if Kelvin Harrison Jr. wasn’t so convincingly charismatic. 

“That’s a testament to the cast and a testament to Kelvin,” says Onah. “He did a tremendous amount of preparation to get where he needed to be for this role. He would come to my office to rehearse all the debates. We’d work on everything from his posture to his rhythm. I got him a dialect coach, somebody who was of Nigerian-American descent and had lived in both Africa and America. We used that as the basis for his voice, because that’s not the way Kelvin naturally speaks. He did a tremendous amount of research. I had him watch some speeches by Barack Obama and also by Will Smith in order to study how they’re able to project this incredible amount of confidence without becoming too arrogant and also reassuring those around them. Making them feel secure, supported and not threatened. All of these things combined to create a character like Luce.” ■

Luce opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 16. Watch the trailer here: