Luce review – provocative examination of race in America | Film

Part cautionary tale about the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover, part wily, gaslighting mind game, Luce is a tricky thing to pin down. And it’s entirely appropriate that a film that so bluntly challenges the preconceptions that determine society’s evaluation of a person should itself be a slippery enigma that defies neat categorisation.

A former child soldier from Eritrea, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) was adopted by Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) and, over the course of a decade of intensive therapy, moulded and polished into a model student. A star athlete and valedictorian with a glossy gift for public speaking, Luce finds himself an emblem that the school displays proudly at every opportunity.

But the effortless code-switching and the mantle of potential takes its toll. The only categories that society seems to have available for a young black man is “saint or monster”. The assumption is that Luce is firmly in the former camp, but his history teacher (Octavia Spencer) raises concerns after finding illegal fireworks stashed in Luce’s locker. Then there is the question of a sexual assault that may or may not have involved Luce. Amy bristles in defence; Peter is less certain. “I’m proud of our son,” he sighs, the curl of his lip signalling that there is a “but” that will qualify the statement.

Adapted by JC Lee and director Julius Onah from Lee’s stage play, the screenplay sets out to puncture audience complacency, to leave us clinging to our assumptions like a deflated life jacket. It’s a film that, like the superb score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, scratches and niggles and gets under the skin. I am not convinced it entirely holds up to the scrutiny that it invites. But the sinewy, textured performances, particularly from Harrison and Spencer, as the teacher who clashes with him, do much heavy lifting over the cracks in the plot.

The film leaves a lot unsaid – perhaps too much at times – and is a little cavalier in the way that it undermines the credibility of female characters. But it’s a smart and provocative examination of unconscious bias and race in America.

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Source: The Guardian

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