The Oppressive Alienation of Black Expectation in ‘Luce’

Julius Onah’s grippingly suspenseful drama-thriller ‘Luce’ audaciously confronts the unmitigated loneliness that is birthed by black tokenization and idealization.

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You are now reading an exclusive feature originally published in Issue 2: Loneliness


There’s an unwritten clause in the symbolic American prophecy that pressures Black people to “be an example” for their race — an object of proof against the slanted stereotypes projected unto them, which makes defying their targeted prejudices their own responsibility. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) lives a life that is not his own, but instead fulfills an existence marked by suffocation within a tightly bolted box of constructed identity and racial expectation. Julius Onah’s 2019 release, Luce, points a sharp, scrutinizing finger at the pressures of Black expectation in a white world, and is deeply coded with criticism towards American idealization and the tokenization of Black success – all of which leaves the film’s titular character arrantly and utterly alienated from those around him.

Adopted from war-torn Eritrea as a child, Luce is a youth soldier turned scholar, athlete, debate club member, orator, and captain of the track team: the “Nelson Mandela” of his school.  He’s the personification of the American Dream — a pedestalized symbol to his parents, peers, and community. He is idolized as an idea, always intended to be a figure to those around him, leaving Luce himself hanging in the balance, existing authentically only in his fleeting moments of solitude or instances of emotional turmoil. Luce is insistently reminded of his position in the culture of his school, but the impetus of his realization of just how cut off he is comes from an assignment given by his teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). He had written an essay from the perspective of a radical leader who believes in using violence to liberate the colonized and make a statement for change. The deed itself is innocent – he did the assignment as asked – but because of his history, it’s seen as a point of concern. This leads to a growing suspicion within Ms. Wilson, swelling indignation within Luce, and a winding narrative of manipulation and ambiguity regarding whether or not he truly believes the words he’s written. 

Luce’s past is his defining grace, it’s what makes him symbolic and idealized. However, when it isn’t applying the crushing pressure of perfection, singling him as a success, it’s used against him, singling him out as suspicious. Ms. Wilson argues that his paper would be concerning to someone “who doesn’t know him,” and yet, she does. She believes that she’s protecting him from profiling, but she’s only profiling him in a different way. His history is used against him, as is his color, and as a result of this, he is always reminded that he has a persona to maintain — one that is outlined, stringent, and not for him to choose or mold to his true disposition. Often Luce is lit in half shadows, a representation of the duality of Luce the myth and the Luce the man. Yet, he’s bound in his bubble, immobile for the sake of others, and at the expense of himself, only allowed in the light when it’s under the conditions of his performative persona.

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The most maddening aspect of the film is that none of it had to happen, but the situation was metastasized by the fragility of his white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). All they needed to do was ask Luce about the situation, but instead, they tiptoe around him and allow the conversation to exist solely in their hushed voices out of the ear-shot of their son. They love Luce, but unbeknownst to them, their love is deeply rooted in their own subconscious superciliousness regarding their own success as parents, “what they’ve built,” and “how hard they’ve worked” – all of which is now being uprooted and flung into the open air by an issue they’ve blindly aided in magnifying. His parents’ own inability to approach him, in favor of their own self-serving pride, is what leads to the spiral of the film’s events and the rage that builds within Luce as he is left to navigate these prejudices alone, without the aid and support from the only two people he could ever expect it from. His parents often refer to him as “our son” or “our child,” but hardly ever by his own name, speaking of him like their possession or accomplishment rather than his own separate entity. His father swiftly chalks up Ms. Wilson’s suspicions and accusations to Luce’s “nature” (read: Blackness), rather than taking even the most fleeting moment to defend his son. It’s only when Ms. Wilson’s sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), has a public meltdown, representing the stereotype of the unstable Black woman, that he relents, yet it only proves that his trust is conditional on finding another source of blame. Luce sees this clearly, learning from his teacher’s quickness to question his character, and the ease with which his parents fail to address him, that he is not seen as a person, only a sacred expectation that everyone is desperate to keep, an object to be paraded, and a symbol for everyone to point to when they need him — Luce the man is crushingly secondary to Luce the myth. 

While school can often be a neutral ground, an escape from the volatility of one’s home life, for Luce it’s not only an extension but the place in which his plight is at its apex — where his mask is most tightly drilled into his skin. Because he is seen as a symbol and not an individual, he can’t establish meaningful relationships with anyone: he is either too revered, too resented, or too gawked at. All of his friendships, and his relationship with Stephanie (Andrea Bang), feel empty, like neither person really knows the other, and there’s a lingering sense of miles of space between him and everyone else – even when he’s right beside them. Even the film’s blocking often situates Luce in opposition to his scene partners: he’s rarely ever on the same plane as them, but always offset in some way. When he attempts to position himself on the same ground as his friends, worrying about getting caught smoking weed and being targeted more harshly by the school, as the Black students usually are, his friend, Kenny (Noah Gaynor), only laughs, saying “You’re not Black Black, you’re Luce” — a statement that segregates him from his own race, yet summarizes everyone’s unspoken view of him, and it’s this link between perception, connection, and identity that cuts the bonds between Luce and his peers before he can even try to tie them. 

“It is your solemn duty to never be stereotypes. Look at Luce.”

Focusing on the relationship between Luce and Ms. Wilson, Luce also thematically concerns itself with the optics and isolation of the aggressor. Both characters are seen interchangeably as victim/perpetrator and both are isolated by their positions within the societal definition of Blackness: Luce is the ideal figure and Ms. Wilson is the voice of society. Their “responsibility” of proving stereotypes to be false leaves them not only persecuted by society as a whole but equally isolated by their interpersonal struggle with one another. The most gripping scene in the film is a conversation between the two in Ms. Wilson’s home, where she explains that all Black people are inside the box that America has built for them, and only so much light gets in. She relays that Luce, as his name bestows, is that light, and it’s his responsibility to make sure others can get it too. While Luce declares that he rejects her sentiment, not wishing to be a symbol for anyone or anything, she dictates through gritted teeth that he has no choice — this is the life he’s given and the prophecy he has to fulfill. 

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The film frames Luce under an intensely daggered eye of suspicion and his behavior is displayed as nefariously flippant, but it all masks the pain and anger that boils inside of him. Luce is a film about retaliation against a system that only strengthens its hold and pushes you farther into isolation. In the zenith of Luce’s display of his own idealization – his speech of his new beginning and reality of the American dream – he rehearses in an empty auditorium through tearing eyes and a swollen throat. When he presents it live, decreeing his consummation of the American ideal to his wide-eyed audience, his eyes are bright, his voice booms, and his smile is expansive – but it’s all tinged with chagrin as the performative nature of it all is realized. Luce’s purpose in the eyes of everyone around him is to exceed expectation and fulfill his constructed image so that he can be tokenized and exploited as an example of both black, and white (on behalf of his parents), success — he lives for the sake of other people’s desire to see Blackness made palatable for their white sentiment. 

Luce’s value is in his conformity to his adherence to symbolism, his achievements are not his own, and his personality is everyone’s to make use of. His identity itself is marked by solitude: he is taken from his homeland, stripped of his original name (for one his parents can more easily pronounce), and his assimilation is hailed for it all. He is not afforded meaningful relationships or an authentic sense of identity and individuality,  and it leaves him constantly, and utterly, alone. Even with all his games and manipulations, executed with tongue-in-cheek arrogance to mask the despair underneath, Luce’s end sight only ended up locking the fist of his expectation in place and affirming his loneliness is by societal design – leaving him to run in rage, in despair, and ultimately, in place.

 

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