Director Julius Onah’s controversial yet thought-provoking Luce is anchored by Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s hauntingly brilliant performance. It counteracts contemporary America’s prevalent post-racial discourse marked by tokenism and white benevolence, and in turn unmasks a variety of imminent yet downplayed racial dilemmas derived from this post-racial myth.
Luce’s protagonist Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a popular all-star high school student, was originally adopted by his liberal white parents as a former child soldier from Eritrea in the midst of war. As their adopted Black son, Luce has internalised the pressure of overachieving from his white parents into his own psyche.
The gradual unfolding of this psychological thriller’s narratives first start when Luce writes an essay that embraces Frantz Fanon’s ideology of supporting necessary violence to realise societal and political changes. Even at the very end of Luce, it cannot be determined whether he genuinely advocates for this ideology given his previously violent and traumatic upbringing, or if he aims at vengefully manipulating and threatening his teacher, whom he considers has wronged his fellow Black schoolmates for her own gratification and vanity. Most likely, there is truth in both scenarios.
At the centre of Luce’s debate and critique of contemporary America’s post-racial myth is Harrison Jr.’s skilfully subtle yet layered performance, laced with an eerie intensity and scenes of catharsis and sorrow. Harrison Jr. approaches Luce with a perfect balance between restraint and clarity. He manifests the character’s struggle with an adolescent, yet dark sense of confusion about his identity, as well as a pent-up urge for rebellion. Not only against his white parents, but also against his teacher, a Black authority figure that puts pressure on him to be a brand-new, model Black man devoid of racially stereotypical vices. More profoundly, the writing of Luce’s character symbolises a resistance to the hypocrisy of a larger system that molds Black Americans to be tokens of colour-blindness and political correctness in a constructed post-racial myth.
Luce’s most clever post-racial metaphor is delivered by Harrison Jr.’s performance in the scene where he eventually goes on the pedestal of his school auditorium for the honorary speech about his “personal” story of assimilating to America; becoming grateful for America and realising the “American Dream”. This singularly chilling performance is achieved through undercurrents of irony and pain hidden behind a demeanour of refinement and articulation, as well as fake smiles of pretension.
Harrison Jr’s Luce is especially reminiscent of Obama in this speech scene, with the speaker-audience setting of an elite and educated Black man of popularity giving a well-scripted, well-received speech. However, this intended innuendo is not a satirical attack on Obama himself, but America’s prevalent post-racial discourse arising during the period of his presidency, which in turn forms the colour-blind illusion and hypocrite self-deceit that there is no longer any pressing need to talk about race or proactively confront racial issues. In response, Luce rings a wake-up call for America via the perversion of a diasporic, Black American teenager soberly conscious of the deprival of his identity and self-agency, whilst having no choice but to conform to what this society imposes on him.
Luce is available to stream on Hulu and rent on Digital now
by Weiting Liu
Weiting (she/her) is a cinephile and television/entertainment/pop culture enthusiast freshly graduated with her Master’s degree in Film Studies. She is currently based in Los Angeles planning on continuing her academic pursuit in the Doctorate studies of sociopolitical Chinese/East Asian cinema. She is also passionate about freelance writing of film/television criticism regarding the topics of race, gender and intersectionality in contemporary America. Her most recent favourite films are Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Last Black Man In San Francisco and A Ghost Story. All of her social media handles are @bangsongliu, though for now she is only very active on Instagram.