Firstpost at Sundance: Julius Onah's Luce challenges America to re-examine its perceptions, blind spots

Prahlad Srihari

Feb 05, 2019 10:36:20 IST

An African-American model student, from an affluent, mostly white and liberal school, is caught between the lofty expectations of his white adoptive parents and the troubling allegations of his African-American history teacher in Julius Onah's part-political allegory, part-psychological drama, Luce.

Firstpost at Sundance: Julius Onahs Luce challenges America to re-examine its perceptions, blind spots

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Luce by Julius Onah, an official selection of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple

Based on the play of the same name by JC Lee, Luce premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2019 to a rousing reception from the audience for its fresh perspective on the black identity in contemporary — supposedly post-racial — America.

In the ten years since Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) adopted their son, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), out of war-torn Eritrea, he has turned into a straight-A student, star athlete, debate team captain and valedictorian. But a seditious essay (endorsing a political radical who encouraged violence) he turns in for his class assignment catches the attention of his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who then discreetly searches his locker only to find something far more discomforting. Concerned about her model student, she reaches out to his parents to discuss their son's unbecoming behaviour.

This sets in motion a chain of gripping events that will question — not only Amy, Peter and Harriet's but also — your own biases, perceptions and blind spots. Because Onah is compelling us to examine how we perceive Luce in contrast to how the others in the film do. In the process, he challenges the whole of America to introspect and examine its perspective on race, identity, stereotypes, conformity and non-conformity. Luce's story of enduring tensions between an African-American son and his adoptive white family is particularly timely as it brings up questions of white guilt and privilege. And Onah weighs up such important themes with humour, depth and plenty of insight.

Octavia Spencer, from left, Tim Roth, director Julius Onah, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts pose for a portrait to promote the film "Luce" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

(From L-R) Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, director Julius Onah, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts pose for a portrait to promote Luce at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

He provokes and pokes fun at our outwardly progressive beliefs by revealing all the unfounded, pre-conceived notions and fears rooted in our so-called liberal discourse. For instance, when Luce calls Harriet a "stern" teacher, his dad jokingly wonders if he meant, "bitch." It is a reminder of how we like to define and put people into neat, little labels — however derogatory or offensive they may be. He further reveals how perspective gets hard wired into our brains, often unconsciously, from the various messages, attitudes and stereotypes we pick up from our environment and even the media we consume.

"We speak about identity in our country and the ways that people can be put in boxes, and the ways we all contribute to that unconsciously without being aware. There are some people in the country who have the full spectrum of humanity available to them. And there are some who don’t. This is a story about questioning how our blind spots and perceptions contribute towards suffocating, dominating, or hurting other people...It’s a story about the ways we look at each other, about privilege and power and the ways we all contribute to creating the culture and society we live in, and taking a moment to think about each one of our blind spots," said Onah in a Q&A following the film's premiere.

Naomi Watts, from left, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer and director/writer/producer Julius Onah pose at the premiere of "Luce" during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

(From L-R) Naomi Watts, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer and director/writer/producer Julius Onah pose at the premiere of Luce during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Image via AP/Arthur Mola

Luce not only functions as a thought-provoking drama but also as an unsettling suspense thriller. And Onah directs the cast with exceptional self-assurance and focus as Harrison Jr, Watts and Spencer all deliver Oscar-worthy performances. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's sound design perfectly complements the direction by amplifying the tension and prolonging the suspense — leaving the audience guessing Luce's intentions throughout the film.

Easily one of the best indies to come out of Sundance 2019, Luce should certainly be high up on your list of most anticipated releases this year.

Director: Julius Onah
Cast: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Rating: ★★★★☆

Updated Date: Feb 09, 2019 10:51:45 IST

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