While our nation’s protests and outspoken activism in the fight for racial justice fade away from the headlines, individual people are still expected to do their part. This includes educating themselves on privilege, understanding their relationship to systemic racism, and recognizing their subconscious biases toward the unconscious projecting of one’s identity onto certain communities. Julius Onah’s Luce (2019) deals with similar themes, specifically the issue of projection and its unfair impact on people of color. Tackling major themes surrounding race, black identity, family, privilege, mental illness, and even sexual assault, the film reflects tension and discomfort through a lack of information, highlighting the identities that are projected onto an adolescent youth searching for his own sense of belonging.
For seventeen-year-old protagonist and soon-to-be high school valedictorian Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), this quest is hijacked by adults trying to protect him from a system already stacked against him. Adopted from a warzone in Eritrea at seven years old by his white American parents, Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts), Luce had been renamed, rehabilitated, and raised to become a star scholar and athlete. In other words, “a poster boy black kid who overcame his tragic past.” His History and Government teacher, Miss Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), recognizes and celebrates Luce’s accomplishments, lifting him onto a pedestal as both a success story for black teens and a future hero of the American Dream.
Luce’s narrative progresses alongside the growing tension between Luce and his teacher. Miss Wilson later meets with Luce’s mother to discuss a concern she had about a paper he wrote from the perspective of Pan-Africanist revolutionary Frantz Fanon, arguing that violence is a necessary means to get a point across. She claims that the alleged violent nature of his paper gave her a reasonable suspicion to check his locker, which included a brown paper bag filled with illegal fireworks. Unveiling this information, however, compromises not only the projection of Luce constructed by Miss Wilson, but also the projection constructed by his parents as well. This ignites an overarching anxiety that pushes these characters to the edge. For the remainder of the film, Luce’s parents and Miss Wilson worry more about the mystery of the threatening fireworks rather than Luce himself, neglecting any concern or mercy for this teenage boy trying to learn about himself.
The relationship between Miss Wilson and Luce is entirely based on projection, something upheld even by his own peers. At one point Luce tells his parents how he feels exploited by Miss Wilson’s projection of him, describing it as “tokenism” while critiquing the nature of identity projection by asking “what’s the difference between punishing someone for being a stereotype and rewarding them when their not?” Miss Wilson’s idea of Luce burdens him with a responsibility that he “did not ask for,” something reflected in his relationship with one of his black peers, Deshaun. Deshaun’s trajectory was also interfered with by Miss Wilson when she had an alleged reasonable suspicion to check his locker and found a bag of marijuana, costing his athletic scholarship and spot on the track team, which in turn caused him to hang out with the wrong crowd. One of Luce’s white friends, Kenny, explains to Luce that Luce and Deshaun are different. He describes Deshaun as “black black” and Luce as “Luce,” negating Luce’s own black identity in comparison to that of Deshaun’s on the basis of reputation alone. In this moment, Kenny exposes his own unconscious bias and racism, projecting yet another idea of who he thinks Luce is supposed to be.
Within the barriers of the film, viewers are only given so much information. They never explicitly witness Luce conspire with his peers, plant fireworks in his locker, or in Miss Wilson’s desk – in other words, we never actually see Luce do anything wrong. The entire implication of thinking that he is even capable of malevolent behavior is toyed with as the audience seeks to take a position on the matter despite the lack of raw evidence to make a proper case. As a result, the audience risks having more in common with the adult characters, joining them in their own projection of who they think Luce is supposed to be. However, we ultimately empathize with Luce, as viewers witness the passionate concern of his parents and Miss Wilson’s construction of this perfect figure they wish to protect, only to see it slowly burn to the ground.
Within Luce, there is a recognition on behalf of the audience that this illegal fireworks conspiracy is bound to expose a yearning for a moral lesson. At the very least, we expect an acknowledgment of right and wrong. Instead, what Luce does so well, beyond the characters themselves, is force the audience to confront their own biases, whatever they may be, and be reminded of how said biases allow us to get lost in the story and neglect the people that need that attention the most.