It’s that same impulse that makes her performance in Luce so effective. We’ve been conditioned to see Spencer as someone we can rely on. But everything in Julias Onah’s movie is designed to make the audience question their own interpretation of what’s happening on-= screen. What you take away from this movie has a lot to do with what you bring to it, and if the sustained teeth-grinding tension doesn’t get you, that nagging thought — that somehow, you’re complicit — will.
Luce is named for its protagonist, model high school student and all-star track athlete Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Adopted at the age of seven from war-torn Eritrea by upper-middle class Virginia couple Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), Luce is a poster boy for bootstraps American potential. A former child soldier, he’s now one of the most popular kids in school, a gifted public speaker, beloved by teachers, parents, and students alike. He’s bound for the best colleges, and a generally bright future. Nothing, it seems, can disrupt his rise.
But of course, that’s not true. As a Black teen, Luce faces overwhelming pressure. He can’t just be good, he has to be the best, twice as good as his white track buddies, who have had such a head start in life. And as if he needed the constant reminder, one look at the way the handful of other Black students are treated is enough to keep him from straying. For those in authority around him, he’s a success story to point to, putting him in the awkward situation of having minority students measured up to him. There’s only so much room at the top, and his success means they fall short.
It’s a lot for any teenager to deal with, let alone one who learned to shoot a gun before he could write. And yet, Luce’s parents seem completely confident that their son has overcome his past. In fact, they’ve largely erased it. (In one powerful scene, Luce recalls that his mom couldn’t pronounce his original name, so they gave him a new one, one that means “light,” a subtle nod to the fact that to adapt, he’s had to tamp down his Blackness.)
Enter Ms. Wilson (Spencer), Luce’s history and government teacher, who flags him as a potential risk when he hands in an assignment written in the voice of Frantz Fanon, a 20th century activist and writer who believed in the right of colonized people to use violence against their oppressors. That, combined with a discovery in his locker, leads her to believe that Luce might be a danger to those around him.
At first, it seems like it’s all a minor misunderstanding. After all, the assignment was in fact to write from the perspective of a historical figure — who among us hasn’t tried to get creative and controversial in an effort to appear interesting? Luce has answers to everything Ms. Wilson throws at him, and the fact that she’s weighed down with caring for her mentally ill sister leads us to suspect that perhaps she’s seeking an outlet for her stress.
But Onah’s skilled direction doesn’t let his protagonist off the hook that easily. No one in this movie is entirely trustworthy. Harrison Jr. gives a mind-bending performance, seducing us, just as he’s done those around him with his boundless charm. But there’s something chilling about that perfect smile, and the way he wields his intellect as a weapon. Similarly, Spencer sparks our sympathy as Ms. Wilson, a Black woman whose professionalism is often misread as “bitchiness,” and whose nights are spent caring for her mentally-ill sister, putting considerable strain on her patience. Their interactions are akin to psychological warfare, a raging battle of wits — and who you’re rooting for depends on your own perspective.
Luce is an ambitious concept — it’s no easy feat to thread the needle on a plot that takes place at the intersection of race, class, sexual assault, and mental health. And indeed, the film feels weighed down at times from the sheer amount of issues it’s trying to tackle. The sexual assault subplot, in particular, feels a little forced. But the truth is that life isn’t a single-issue journey; it’s messy, and complicated, and Luce goes a long way in depicting that.
Perhaps the most compelling thread in this film is its exploration of social codes, and how they can be used to create community or insulate from those outside it. It’s an issue Ms. Wilson brings up repeatedly during her class, and one we see play out in real time. Both Ms. Wilson and Luce know how to code switch, and use it as a way to earn the respect of their white peers. But Luce has the backing of white parents, who can signal their disapproval of Wilson to his white principal with one glance. Luce highlights our society’s reluctance to believe Black women above all. With a single comment from Amy, Ms. Wilson finds her reputation and sanity being questioned by this group of white adults. Similarly, when her sister has a manic episode in the school lobby, the footage Luce shows his parents ends with a white finger on the lens. It was taken by a white student.
No matter how you feel about the conflict between Ms. Wilson and Luce, Onah’s film makes one thing clear: they are both pawns in a system they have little say over. All they can do is play the cards they’ve been dealt to their full advantage. There’s no satisfying conclusion, no easy resolution. How the film ends isn’t exactly up for interpretation, but how you feel about it certainly is. This is one we’ll be talking about for a while.