Beyond the Façade: Julius Onah’s Luce Explores the Inner Turmoil of a Model Immigrant Student

LUCE

Star athlete and brilliant debate-team captain at his Virginia high school, 17-year-old Luce is accomplished by any measure. His American success story is particularly amazing, however, because he’s a former child soldier from Eritrea, whose life took a positive path when he was adopted by white couple Amy and Peter Edgar. But there’s more to Luce than that wholesome picture. A troubling complication is revealed when his teacher reads an essay he’s written that seems to condone violence, and she subsequently finds fireworks stored in his locker.

Adapted from J.C. Lee’s 2013 stage play by Lee and director Julius Onah, Luce is a gripping drama about race, perception, and identity that, like its lead character, keeps you continually off-balance and uncertain where your allegiances lie from scene to scene. For Onah, the project is particularly personal, since he was born in Nigeria, the son of a diplomat, and traveled the world before settling in Arlington, Virginia, at age 10, where he lived with his mother and siblings after his father returned to Africa.

“I grappled with identity in many different ways, on a number of different levels,” Onah says of his youthful experience as a new arrival in America. “What did it mean to be an African? What did it mean to be an African American? What did it mean to be an immigrant? Because of the conditions I grew up in, there were certain moments of my time when I had privilege, and there were certain moments when I didn’t have privilege. Yet, in my interactions with people, one label or another would be the one that they chose to apply. So, as we continue to grapple with identity in this country in ways that are becoming much more complex, it requires a conversation that is much more nuanced. And that is not something that I think as a country at large we’re quite used to yet. We’ve had these traditional notions of what lane everybody’s supposed to be in.”

Onah continues, “When I first read the play, I was struck by the sophistication it had and the intelligence with which it was grappling with identity and this notion that we all live on a spectrum and are more than one thing beyond what I just see. So is everybody in this room. And as we come to grips with that, there are truths we’re going to find, there are things we’re going to learn about each other that make living in the community and the idea of what America’s supposed to represent something much more achievable. But we’re at a moment where, regardless of what your politics are, I don’t think that the idea of the spectrum that we live on and the multiplicity of identities that one person can contain is one that anybody has quite come to terms with yet. There are entrenched and internalized and now outdated ideas that we still haven’t unearthed. It was exciting, just on a social and political level, to explore those ideas, but also to use those ideas as the engine of a thriller that can leave the audience on the edge of their seats. But not in the typical way. There’s no blood, there’s no guts, there’s no war—none of the things that are typical staples of a thriller. Luce is this kid who comes from a background of violence, growing up in a conflict zone and witnessing death and brutality and all these things that are not typical for a child, yet he moves from one war zone to another one. And that’s the psychological war zone of identity in America.”

And here’s where race and status come into play. “Though we all are dealing with the multitudes that we can tame, there are some of us who have more privileges and more power in how we get to define ourselves, how we get to wield our identities, versus those who haven’t. That’s another part of the big conversation we’re having in this moment: How do we create the kind of environment where no matter who you are, you get to have that complex and complicated and messy inner life and not necessarily be punished for it? Regardless of what everyone’s politics are, there are those who get to lead a complicated, messy lifestyle and maybe one day become president, and there are those who don’t. And that’s just objective truth. That’s not political slant.”

Aside from Luce, played brilliantly by the charismatic Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (It Comes at Night), “complicated” also describes the other main characters in the film: Amy (Naomi Watts), the compassionate adoptive mother who is torn apart by the accusations against her son; Peter (Tim Roth), the father who harbors a surprising amount of regret and bitterness; and Harriet Wilson (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), the teacher whose views on race and responsibility clash with Luce’s. 

“All these actors had to have a really complex understanding of who they were and use that as a foundation,” Onah notes, “so that even though different sides of them were revealed in different scenes, it still felt like it was coming from a consistent core. You have to have this macro-level view of your character but also be in touch with some of the contradictions of that character when you make a turn and do something unexpected or surprising. It was a lot of work, and we spent about a week and a half, which is unusual for a movie this small, but it speaks to the commitment of the actors, who all came in early. We went through the script and we talked through the characters and their relationships and their perspectives and their politics, and really tried to have a firm grasp of where they were coming from.”

Luce has the potential to turn Harrison into a star. “Kelvin is incredible,” says Onah. “I always tell people, you’re doing a movie like this and you have the roles of Amy and Peter and Harriet, and there are lists you can think of, amazing people. And luckily I got the people at the top of the list for each one of these roles: Naomi and Octavia were people I imagined while I was writing. Tim, a brilliant, brilliant, legendary actor. But with the Luce role, there’s no list of, well, who’s going to pull off being a 17-year-old former child of violence in Eritrea? And not just do it, but do it convincingly across the board in terms of, what do they look like? Can they handle the degree of language and text and the shifts and the nuance? And Kelvin just blew me away when I saw his audition. The process of working with him was quite intensive. I was a debater in high school, I ran on the track team, so there were elements of myself I gave to the character. Kelvin comes from an arts family, a jazz family in New Orleans. He is not a natural athlete, so he did a tremendous amount of work. He took running lessons. He took basketball lessons. We got him a dialect coach who helped him create the speaking patterns for the character, which was based on a real Nigerian American author. He also had to do a lot of reading and writing to be at that intellectual level that the character exists on. The paper he writes in the movie references Franz Fanon, so he read several Franz Fanon books, Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin, White Masks, and he actually wrote the paper in the movie. And Octavia Spencer, in character, actually graded the paper.”

The tense standoff between Luce and Spencer’s Harriet, both black, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this provocative film. “We wanted to be as honest as possible about how power works, or at least in our experience how power works. I’m an immigrant, I’m black. J.C., who wrote the play that it’s based on, is also a person of color. So we come from backgrounds where we’ve been subject to power in ways that at times have been aligned with a character like Harriet. It’s not to say that this happens all the time, but in this set of circumstances if she had singled out a different kid—DeShaun [a far less privileged, harder-edged black student], he’s not from a position of privilege and power that allows him to bring his parents into a situation where they can speak up for him. Despite who she thinks Luce is, she also forgets what kind of family Luce is a part of. And that is a big part of where she ends up in the story.”

Yet another topical element in the film is its subplot about Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), a student whose response to a gang sexual assault may startle audiences. “We saw it as an honest reflection yet again of power, and the messiness and the complexity of how a human being can behave. There are going to be people who want a story to conform to their ideas of how the world works. But if we want to truthfully grapple with these really difficult issues, we also have to contend with the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all truth to the way people behave. You can have an individual who goes through an authentic, real trauma react in a way that is complex and messy—and that does not diminish the truth of their trauma.

“One of the most telling moments for me was when we were screening the movie and a woman who worked with teenage abuse victims stood up and said, ‘This is one of the few times I’ve watched a movie that reflected honestly the way some young women I counsel behave.’ There’s a tendency in these types of stories to sanitize behavior. … But we also have to be willing to deal with people who might do things that we don’t like.”

Onah says he’s been “a massive fan” of Naomi Watts since Mulholland Drive. “What was so great was the degree of preparation she brings. She asked: Where are the white papers on adoptions from Eritrea? Luckily, I was able to provide those to her, because we really tried to do our homework. Part of what is so appealing about the story for me, aside from all these other issues we’re talking about, is the element of parenting and the notion that you never know the entirety of who your child might become, what your child might be doing when they leave the house. But as a parent, your love for them still has to stay unconditional. How far would you go to protect somebody you love? What would you do in the face of somebody who is threatening everything you’ve built? Naomi came with a keen understanding of that. I’m not a parent myself and neither is J.C., so we can write what feels emotionally true, but to live it on-screen has to come from somebody who either has incredible empathy and understanding or has lived a version of it themselves. And with Naomi we were lucky to have both.”

As for Spencer, “I’d always been really impressed with Octavia. And then I saw her do something that was like, wow, OK, there’s so much to this woman. It was in Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer. You’ve seen some of the roles she’s done in Hollywood films, and then you see her do a complete 180 in that and you’re just like: What?! OK, I’ve got to work with this person. It takes real bravery to not just walk in one lane and say: All right, I’ve won an Oscar. She’s making such incredibly brave choices.”

Rising specialty distributor Neon opens Luce in theaters on August 2, and Onah is hoping people go out of their way to see his film in a cinema. “For me, there’s no greater community than when people come to watch a movie in a movie theater. That’s my ultimate sense of community. I love all kinds of things. I love music, I love going to an art exhibit, but the theater for me is everything—probably even more so than church, even though I was raised Catholic. Because you never know who’s going to walk into that room, and there’s an egalitarian environment that’s created there that is different from just about any other art form, because it is still a popular art. It was very important for me that this was a story that people could experience in a theater and as they walk out of it wonder: Well, what did the person next to me think? What did the person next to me feel? How am I looking at the person next to me? Hopefully a little bit differently and not jumping to the same conclusions about who I think they are or where I think they may be coming from.”

Luce is Onah’s third feature, following The Girl Is in Trouble (2015) and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018). How does he feel he’s fared as that rarity, a Nigerian American director? “Look, it’s hard for every filmmaker. Obviously, as a filmmaker of color, there are fewer doors historically that have been open. There are still fewer doors that are open now. But we are clearly in a moment where I think people are seeking new voices. The challenge for me has always been authenticity. I moved to America when I was 10 years old. I grew up on four different continents. My American experience was being raised by Nigerian parents who were not American. So there’s a specificity to my point of view and where I come from. And to try to bring that into storytelling, it also doesn’t conform to boxes that people want to put you in or the lane you’re supposed to travel. Luce has been a really gratifying and in many ways beautiful moment for me, because it’s the first film I’ve gotten the opportunity to make that allowed me to bring my experiences, my ideas, in a way that was uncompromised to the storytelling. I can only hope I get a chance to tell more stories like this.

“I was lucky to go to film school at NYU. There are people from China, there are people who are also from Nigeria. There are people who are from parts of Europe. And I think a lot of us who are young voices, who want to tell stories left of center, are all trying to find a way to get those stories out there and hopefully provide an alternative from the status quo, which at times can be fun and exciting. But I really do think to move the conversation culturally forward, we have to have things beyond just the most recognizable, easily digestible brand or franchise that we’ve already seen.”

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