A majority of modern films attempt to tackle racial commentary, in manners that feel as if this complex issue is being simplified to such a narrow-minded degree that it stops short at reaching the heart of the issue. Several films about race, such as this past year’s winner for the Best Picture Oscar Green Book, are usually told from the perspective of the white protagonist, (as well as from the white filmmakers) as they learn to be more tolerant and accepting of other races, whereas the true core of how racism is ingrained in our society runs much deeper than just hating someone for the color of their skin.
Thankfully, there have become more films helmed by diverse filmmakers that aim more towards the heart of institutionalized racism such as Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, however these films are usually set in the past, and while there are attempts to tie-in to what’s happening nowadays, it can sometimes soften the blow for more general audiences, making racism feel like an antiquated notion that isn’t as prevalent as it was back then. This is obviously not the case and Luce is one of those rare films that dares to tackle the complicated intricacies of modern-day race relations. Quite an impressive comeback for director, Julius Onah, whose previous directorial effort was the much-maligned Cloverfield Paradox.
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the ideal pupil at his high school as an all-star athlete and class valedictorian. Given his childhood background as a child soldier in Eritrea, he and his adopted parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) have worked to overcome his traumatic upbringing and mold him into a model American citizen. His story is used in his community as an example of black excellence not conforming to the stereotypes attached to your race or heritage, and an example of America as the land of opportunity allowing for the start of a new life. His history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins to become suspicious of him after certain aspects of his political views and extraneous actions come to light, which sets in motion a complex examination of race, identity, social status, and how all of these things affect and reflect each other.
For a film that attempts to juggle so many various hot-button issues in today’s current political climate, it never tries to impose any specific viewpoint or statement on its audience. It allows for each of its principal characters, even minor background characters who would normally never be given their say, to express themselves and make their points be heard without painting any perspective as a strawman argument. The interactions and discussions unfold between characters with such palpable intensity that not even most action thrillers can match. Every new bit of information that gets revealed about these characters causes such earth-shattering domino effects in their relationships and their perceptions of each other, which make for riveting interpersonal drama.
Luce is a breeding ground for dynamic, powerhouse dramatic performances from each member of its ensemble cast, each getting to express their range and challenge their capabilities as they’re each given such rich and multi-layered characters to work with in ways that reveal everyone as being not who they seem to be. Kelvin Harrison Jr. brings such a likable, charming presence to Luce that makes you fully believe that he would be as respected and revered among his community as he is, to the point where he seems almost too perfect to an unbelievable degree, which allows for the suspicions that get raised about him, later on, to seem credible. Octavia Spencer rides a fine line between being both intimidating and sympathetic that in this battle of wits between her and Luce, we understand both perspectives and don’t want to root against either one.
Throughout all of the film’s intelligent commentary and the character development between our leads, there are a couple of subplots that each of the two main characters involved with that attempt to reveal more about them personally. One involving a former romantic interest of Luce, and one with Ms. Wilson’s mentally unstable sister. While they do add more back story to the characters and unexpected twists to the plot, they do not always feel entirely relevant to the central conflict at hand, and neither is given a fulfilling conclusion.
The issues of race that Luce brings up are more layered and complex than typical Hollywood movies about race, including certain Best Picture winners in recent history, are willing to tackle. It’s not simply a clear cut blanket statement just about how racism is bad but instead tackles race and prejudice from a hierarchical perspective within the African-American community itself, which is an angle of racial commentary that is rarely ever touched upon. The film also no easy answers for any of the issues that it brings up, or the decisions that the characters make. It also never gives us any clear answers regarding certain characters’ actions or outcomes, which creates an ambiguity that really highlights that the faces that people put on don’t always reflect their true selves, and we might never really know who they even are.