No Concessions: “Luce” examines race, respectability on the other side of the aisle

Films about race in America typically center Blacks or other POC as victims of some conservative-bred bigotry. A historical piece on slavery or Jim Crow-era perseverance. A white savior who champions on the Latinx prisoner/student/athlete’s behalf. Luce inverts this narrative with its focus on middling liberal America.

Based on the play by J.C. Lee, Luce is about a brilliant high school student defying the odds in an “only in America” narrative. Raised in Africa as a child soldier, Luce (Kelvin Harrsion Jr.) is rescued, adopted and rehabilitated by an affluent white couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). But when a teacher (Octavia Spencer) suspects some disturbing truths, Luce’s picture-perfect identity reveals cracks in its frame.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) is an athletic and popular star student in director Julius Onah’s film, based on J.C. Lee’s play.

Directed by Julius Onah, Luce continues a very recent conversation on the other side of racism: white liberal. While the acts aren’t new, they are definitely more profoundly discussed and called out. Jordan Peele’s Get Out touched on some of these themes. The Armitage family veiled their fatal love of the Black body with platitudes about voting for Barack Obama twice and spending time in the Motherland. Luce takes this further with the odd championing of Black success and respectability.

Harrison Jr. is placed on a pedestal. He’s his school’s blueprint of success; his parents’ pride and joy. But it’s this esteem that’s suffocating him, becoming more of a burden. He’s alienated from his friends and other Black students. He’s afraid to make a mistake in fear of condemnation. And the same privilege he’s been rewarded heralds him as a pendant of their own “wokeness.” These factors mixed in with the typical teenage-brain equate to a masterful downward spiral.

Harrison Jr. is magnificent in the role. He’s believably charismatic until he reveals his diabolically cruel streak. Especially in his scenes with Spencer. And yet, he is dashingly vulnerable, reminding viewers he’s still a child. One probably too brilliant for his own good.

In addition to his performance, I thoroughly enjoyed Spencer’s backstory. She isn’t much different than Harrison as the exceptional Black female faculty member of a suburban high school. She’s been etched as “not like the others,” and despite this ugly label, she’s subconsciously bought into the narrative — keeping her baggage hidden from sight until it isn’t.

The film also manages to weave in other topical issues briefly at most. A slight police brutality nod and the perils of social media. The most major subtopic, MeToo-esque story line, is never quite resolved. But then again, that may have been intentional as the film leaves the judgment to the viewers.

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