By Samantha Ofole Prince
His latest project is a riveting adaptation of the 2013 play by J.C. Lee called “Luce,” which tackles racial identity and white privilege. A film, which stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, it follows an adopted Eritrean former child soldier called Luce (played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) who is struggling to find his footing in Arlington, Virginia. It’s a perfectly crafted flick which tackles themes of parenting, privilege, prejudice. Samantha Ofole-Prince caught up with director Julius Onah ("The Girl Is In Trouble") to talk about the movie’s message and impact.
What was it about the play ‘Luce’ that sparked your interest to have it adapted for the big screen?
One of the things that impressed me about the play was the dialogue it created around blackness and black identity and how it played out between a woman who is African American — who was born and raised in this country — and a kid who was an immigrant from Africa. It was something I related to on a deep level because I was born in Nigeria and spent the first 10 years of my life traveling around the world. The notion of being an outsider is something I’ve lived in many ways and really drew me to Luce. Not to mention that for the first decade of my life I was an African and then I was an African American. I had this whole history thrust on me that wasn’t something entirely organic to who I was other than the color of my skin.
Luce, the film’s character, is a former child soldier who is adopted by white parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Both are liberal, well intentioned people whose values become tested. How did you make them original and unique?
I knew a lot of people like Amy and Peter in Arlington. People who are educated, smart, privileged and profess certain “liberal” values. What I found interesting about the story was what happens when people who look good on paper discover tension between the values they profess and having to actually live those values. For the film to work Amy and Peter had to be relatable — they are people who believe in the kinds of things we generally want to say we believe in, but when placed in a difficult situation we find they might not have the vocabulary or experience to deal with tension in sophisticated ways. They have a degree of obliviousness as well — their good intentions become a path to a destructive place without it necessarily being rooted in some malevolent impulse.
There’s an interesting dynamic between Luce and his teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer) can you talk a little more about that relationship?
I wanted to focus on the generational schism between Luce and Harriet in this movie. She’s a product of the Sixties, and civil rights, the liberal movement that was about erasing the differences between people and focusing on a language of uplift — you can see the direct line of this from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. Hers is a colorblind, non-confrontational ethos of how we address issues of race, power and privilege in this country. Luce is a product of something completely different — he’s saying to Harriet that if the point of that movement, and of revolution in general, was to give us the freedom to be who we want to be, then he should have the freedom to define himself entirely on his own terms.
Questions of power and privilege are clearly central to the film, what was your approach to raising those questions?
One of my key concerns with Luce and intertwined with exploring identity, is exploring power – who has it, who doesn’t, and how our institutions uphold the rigid systems of power that disadvantage certain demographics. So much of the dialogue in our culture right now is about confronting systems of power that disenfranchise women, the LGBTQIA community, people of color, people with disabilities and a myriad of other marginalized groups. This movie explores how life can be experienced by those on the receiving end of exploitative and unfair power dynamics.
How was your own upbringing similar to Luce’s?
I grew up in a very strict Catholic immigrant Nigerian family where it was all about academics. When I dyed my hair as a kid, it was simply not accepted at home. Like Luce, I wanted to push at boundaries and challenge the preconceived notions of my Nigerian identity with my parents and also the preconceived notions of a community like Arlington. I pushed in different ways and at different times though.
What made you cast Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as Luce?
I was always confident that we’d be able to get great actors for the parents and teachers, and I was glad to cast Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer in major roles. But I had no idea where we would find somebody to play Luce. I had seen nothing of Kelvin’s work. We did an open call and saw a ton of actors; people submitted tapes from as far away as Australia and England. I honestly expected we would find someone in England — where the John Boyegas of the world are coming from, all these theater-trained actors of African descent who grow up abroad. But I never imagined we would find someone in our own backyard. Kelvin submitted a tape and it blew us away.
How did you help Kelvin think about and develop Luce’s very complicated character?
There were two models I gave Kelvin for the character during preparation: Barack Obama and Will Smith. To me, they’re the apotheosis of a cool, but non-threatening black masculinity. They have immense power and popularity, not to mention charisma and charm. I don’t think there would be a Barack Obama without Will Smith. Not long-ago characters like John Prentice (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and Phil Huxtable gave America a vision of this non-threatening and respectable sense of black masculinity, but it was quite old-fashioned and sort of defiantly un-cool. What Will did, and what Obama was able to do in his shadow, was much different. They allowed black masculinity to stay non-threatening but also be cool and youthful and particularly with Obama, be highly intelligent. This became a counterpoint to the recent image of black masculinity that emerged with 90s hip-hop, with rappers like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre., who were seen as oversexualized and criminal. Will Smith and Barack Obama came along and provided something new that lived between those poles and was widely embraced. So, it was an ideal template for Luce.
What about casting some of the more experienced actors?
Timing was fortuitous because JC has a really solid career as a TV writer, to say nothing about the reputation of Luce as a play. When we started going out to actors, JC had already met with Octavia to discuss an unrelated TV project. We knew we wanted to go out to her first, so I sent her the script and we had a brief phone call. She told me she felt she knew Harriet Wilson as a person, which was a relief to me. With this role, Octavia really goes above and beyond. Naomi was dream casting as she was someone I envisioned when writing the script. Miraculously as the project started to pick up some buzz, we were lucky enough to bring Naomi on board, and Tim soon followed. They both blew me away and between them they gave life to the vital roles – and audience surrogates – of Amy and Peter.
What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?
Luce represents the best and worst of black identity. He’s got this effortless brilliance and charm, is a great speaker, and a talented athlete. But at the same time, he has a history of violence as a child soldier. His story is very complicated. I hope it gives people an opportunity to reflect and ask questions. Whatever they feel about the movie is theirs to feel — for me, it’s more about the opportunity to reflect upon and engage with ideas. I hope people embrace its ambiguity, and I hope it gets under their skin, leaving viewers to question where they fit into all of this. I hope it challenges them to stand outside of their own experience and POV and forces them to ask how they are participating in the way privilege and power operates in this country and in our world.
“Luce” is out in theaters. Check out the trailer below:
(Photos courtesy of Neon)