White Fear, Black Grief, and the Horrors of Being Put in a Box: A Conversation with “Luce” Filmmaker Julius Onah and Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.




Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue along with sincerity. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a great virtue, too.

James Baldwin

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EARLY ON IN Luce, a late summer psychodrama, American history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) requests to speak with Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts), the adopted mother of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school honor student whose honor would seem to be under sudden suspicion. “Given Luce’s background, you and Peter must have faced quite a few challenges,” says Harriet from her classroom desk, referring to the young man’s childhood spent in embroiled Eritrea. To this, Amy responds, “I mean you don’t pull a kid out of a warzone and have him turn out like Luce without a lot of help.” Harriet replies with a direct gaze and sharp drop in tone: “Which is why this is going to be difficult.” “Difficult?” blinks Amy, her china blue eyes radiating cluelessness.

In a way, this exchange encapsulates the crux of what is undoubtedly and necessarily one of the summer’s most difficult films, perhaps especially for white, progressive-minded viewers. Is Luce as unimpeachable as his parents presume, the brilliant “light” for which he was named upon adoption? Or is he a threat to his school and community? Shirking simplicity for complexity, easy answers for unsettling ambiguity, Nigerian-American director Julius Onah refuses to let either his characters or audience off the hook. Based on the acclaimed 2013 play by JC Lee, which Onah and the playwright together adapted for the screen, Luce probes the soft spots of white liberal righteousness with surgical precision, exposing the legacy of racism that not only lingers in post-Obama America but is patently inherent to our national psyche.

The following conversation unfolded in early August the week the film made its New York debut.

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EILEEN G’SELL: This film has been discussed so much in terms of its themes like, “Let’s talk about race.” But what struck me as just as important is how your film was made. This is the first time I’ve seen a film that grapples with race and hierarchies of power in a way such that I, as a viewer, was faced with fears that I didn’t want to acknowledge that I might have had. Luce exposes the darkest reaches of the white imagination, perhaps specifically white fear. 

JULIUS ONAH: There’s no way you can’t be aware of [white fear], especially as a person of color in a majority white country. I always tell people that I love all these characters, regardless of how messy they are, regardless of them doing things that we may not like or approve of. I know versions of all these people. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, the setting of the movie. I was a version — as was Kelvin — of the “model minority,” a person that others found acceptable. When you live in that perspective, you see the way you are treated and the ways that people who are white categorize you or put you in a certain box, or do certain things to absolve themselves of certain responsibilities — “Well, if I do this, if I say that, if I perform this, then it means I’m not racist, I’m progressive, I’m open-minded…” Part of what the film’s story is exploring is how, even having the privilege to think that way is a form of power, and provides one of the means to exercise power over other people. It leads to certain injustices that are pervasive every day in our culture. A big part of it is how that thinking absolves one from a true responsibility to do the messy work. A big part of the story is the way that people in marginalized groups are often asked to live their lives on a symbolic level, to be an example of the kind of progress that says, “So, we did this and this. We elected the first black president, so now we’re post-racial,” or, if we’d elected Hillary, we would be post-gender. But we don’t have to do that actual work at the structural and systemic problems that are hundreds of years old, just within this country, that need to be dismantled.

There’s no way that I couldn’t be conscientious of that, that JC Lee — who wrote the beautiful play, and who co-wrote the script with me — couldn’t be conscientious as well. But the thing is, when you start to ask those questions, it’s fucking scary as hell. We were terrified at various different points of this movie.

I appreciated the fact that I was faced with fear I didn’t expect. The way that the film is made forces us to ask, “Is Luce a dangerous character? Is he a victim? Is he both? What is he capable of?” Kelvin, in playing Luce, who is such an incredibly complex character, did you see him as dangerous? How did you get into his perspective? 

KELVIN HARRISON JR.: What we always started with is that he’s a 17-year-old boy who is very talented, very gifted. And I don’t even know that he’s always as aware of how much he’s capable of. He’s operating with instinct, operating with truth, operating with passion, with an awareness of people around him, and being empathetic, but at the same time fighting. We went through beat by beat to determine his character.

LUCE

In ways, though billed as a psychological thriller, Luce resembles a horror film, and implicitly, a lot of horror films deal with themes of exclusion and monstrosity. Julius, you directed The Cloverfield Paradox, and Kelvin, you acted in It Comes at Night, so you both have a background in supernatural films. Were you thinking of deploying those techniques in this film? I’m thinking of offscreen disruptions, low-key lighting, and the music. 

ONAH: Absolutely. I love horror movies — there’s just a visceral experience you have with them that probably brings you closer to death, on a roller-coaster, more than anything else. To your point, when you go through that white-knuckle experience to these scary places, there’s a kind of clarity that it can give you when you later think about certain things. And maybe that helps approach a kind of truth, or a sense of truth, that allows you to talk about these things in ways that are more honest. Part of the reason we don’t talk about these things is because we’re afraid. If a movie can take you to that experience where you’re like, “Okay, this is scary, but if I can get past that, I might be able to do the work of unpacking it,” I think that’s a beautiful thing. For me, this movie very much felt like an object that could rock people around them to have some of these difficult, scary conversations.

As far as the techniques — the composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did a beautiful score of the film — and same thing with our director of photography, Larkin Seiple, who did an amazing job with the lighting. All of this was very intentional, not just for the sake of it.

Kelvin, there are not many POV shots of your character, so it’s harder to sense Luce’s motives. And the POV shots we do see are typically of his phone screen, which read as a bit enigmatic. Did you invent your own motives for his behavior?

HARRISON: It started with literally just doing too much work. [Laughs.] I had to go in and overdo it, and play everything and show everything, and then let Julius dial me back. If I give him more to play with, he can always shave some of it off.

ONAH: And this guy’s incredible. He gave us so much and so many options. His preparation was outstanding.

HARRISON: He studied acting, so he knows how to handle actors. [Laughs.] So that’s part of it. Playing Luce, I had an opinion on whether I’m going to look at Facebook or if I’m going to search for Harriet’s name, and what I’m going to do with that, even though I don’t have to answer to it in that moment. So I had to go moment by moment and break it down, as Luce would, in the film. And then Julius would just say, “Don’t show your cards as much.” And that would immediately shift the performance into something more ambiguous, or scary, or menacing because it’s like, “What is Luce thinking?” Of course, he’ll tell you later because the script’s so beautiful.

I heard viewers at the screener saying, when Luce smiles, “Oh, that’s so creepy.” But then of course at other times there are scenes where your character is so sympathetic, like when Luce is practicing his speech in front of an empty auditorium and is crying, grappling with the impossibility of embracing the American Dream. And, later, we see the same speech, performed in this extremely innocuous, almost hokey way. There’s a deliberate hokeyness to Luce that reminded me a little of Obama’s press briefings. 

ONAH: You see the first version of Luce’s speech, and then, by the time that you get to the end, you see the tax that he has to pay to be that person in public. It’s something that JC and I spoke about also: “What is the tax that someone like Barack Obama has to pay, as a human being?” He lives his life on this symbolic level for the consumption of not just everyone in this country, but everyone in the world, who wants to point to him and say, “Because of that, we did the thing.”

LUCE

We’re exonerated. 

ONAH: Yes, “we’re exonerated.” But in reality there’s still a human being there, and in reality there’s so much work there should be doing. The thing is, we see that work as an imposition, as a reflection that maybe there’s something wrong with us, rather than seeing it as the possibility to live up to ideals that, especially in this country, are enshrined in our Constitution.

I was thinking about that with respect to Ms. Wilson’s character. She represents a different generation, and tells Luce, “This isn’t about you. It’s about everybody.” There’s an amazing essay by Margo Jefferson about how Black women don’t have the permission to be openly depressed, because there’s a mandate to present oneself as strong and resilient. Luce’s struggle internally was part and parcel of something that’s been written about a lot more recently in terms of public versus private and the way that the Black self is represented. Did you have different goals for how you anticipate Black viewers to respond, as opposed to white viewers?

ONAH: Yes. With a movie like this, part of the thrill, part of the fear, part of the danger is not knowing fully how people are going to react. But at the same time, there are things you know Black audiences will recognize. That scene when Harriet is talking to Principal Dan about Luce’s paper, and he says, “What if it just went over your head?”

LUCE

Or the time when he tells her that she’s “articulate”

ONAH: Or, without spoiling the third act, the gaslighting that happens. So many people, whether you’re a person of color or a woman in certain situations, have experienced how people in positions of power can easily decide what the truth is going to be in that moment. That’s something that certain Black audiences certainly recognize in the film. And I’ve had moments where certain white members of the audience are immediately ready to completely villainize Luce, who are bringing in a baggage of what they think a young Black man might be capable of, and don’t even want to consider the complexity of what might be going on inside of him. And that dismissal then justifies any way they feel about him, regardless of what he does. That’s what I loved what you said earlier about that fear of feeling implicated in your perspective of who this person is and how you judge him. Because I think if one is willing to stand outside of where they’re coming from and just view this person as a human being, no matter whether you like him or not, then you start to unpack certain things that are scary but make you think about how you view people in general.

One of the things that was really smart is how we see the little house in the woods the first time. Initially, it doesn’t look scary or like a horror movie: we just see Luce’s buddy smoking weed, and it all seems totally teenage and normal. But then the second time we see it, after he’s behaved alarmingly at Ms. Wilson’s, we’re encouraged to be more afraid. Suddenly this little house in the woods becomes a horror staple. We’re imagining what’s inside, and it’s terrifying.

ONAH: A number of people have mentioned that. And when I hear the different theories of what people will think will happen, it’s like, “Whoa!” It’s what, as a director, you hope for.

It’s really exploiting some of the worst aspects of the imagination. I also wanted to ask about the film’s subjective opening and ending. In the first shot, we have a long take of Luce’s locker. We can’t see who’s dropping the bag in, and we can’t see who’s grabbing the book, because it’s outside the frame. And then in the final shot, we have another long take of Luce running toward us, the camera slowly tracking back. You can’t tell if he is feeling absolute rage or absolute grief. Either seems possible. How did you see that last shot? 

HARRISON: When we were doing that shot, it was additional, a pick-up day, almost three or four months after the shoot. But then diving back into all my notes, all the things we talked about, and knowing what Luce had been through, we’d experienced the whole movie at that point. I got to feel the pressure, and I was angry, but I was also hurt by a lot of it. As an actor, the choice I made was that Luce could not shake what Harriet had said to him — that America “puts you in a box, and it’s tight and it’s dark, and you can’t get out of it, so get the fuck out of my house!” I felt Luce did what he did because he thought he was doing something good, helping out his peers, empowering the next generation, but then suddenly learns he’s wrong. So what does that mean? He’s thinking, “Am I not as smart as I thought I was? What did I just do? Did I just hurt my community more than I helped? Who am I? But at the same time, I still feel justified. I’m very conflicted. I’m mad that I’m in this situation, I’m mad that America does this to me, I’m mad. Will I ever win? What do I do next? I’m fighting, I’m fighting, I’m fighting. And then ‘Aaaah!’” It’s like an explosion.

It’s an explosive final shot.

ONAH: To your point, it’s a Rorschach test. It’s up to every audience member to decide what they think is going on in that final shot. That’s why I wanted that shot as the end of the film. It’s important that it doesn’t wrap things up in a bow, it’s important that we are left with the same kinds of questions that we’ve been dealing with over the course of the story. All you hope is that someone like Kelvin is doing that shot, so that it’s rendered with the kind of truthfulness that leaves you with those questions.

What did you think it was — rage or grief?

I thought both. The first time I saw it, I felt more grief, pain, or hurt. But at the same time, a viewer who had been afraid of Luce could potentially leave thinking that Luce is angry and dangerous. But to me, at least, he could both. So often Black characters are depicted as one or the other as traumatized victims, or as dangerous criminals.

It also reminded me of the moment when Amy, his mother, says, “I’m trying to protect you.” And Luce responds, “What if you’re what I need protecting from?”

ONAH: It’s a form of privilege for Amy to not even be aware of how she’s putting Luce in a box, or how she is dehumanizing him. At times, Luce becomes a prop for Amy: a representation to the rest of the world about how liberal and progressive and open-minded she is, which challenges his ability to fully realize himself as a human being. There’s also the universal element of parents and kids — that moment where the kid wants to leave the nest, and thinks, “You’re snow-ploughing me, you’re helicoptering me, you’re smothering me.” That’s the trickiness of this movie. Everything is always happening on multiple levels. But that doesn’t mean you can dismiss the racialized component of it. That’s there, and that says a lot about the moment we are in in this country. All one has to do is read the headlines every day. It’s terrifying. I’m scared.

This is the kind of film that demands that viewers stop making excuses for themselves.

ONAH: Exactly.

LUCE

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All images: courtesy NEON Films, © Jon Sell.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).


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