Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of NEON.

In Conversation: The Makers of ‘LUCE’ Use the Film To Turn America’s Ideas of Race & Identity on Its Head

We speak with playwright JC Lee and director Julius Onah on how this psychological thriller is unlike any other as it addresses social issues in an uncommon way.

LUCE is not your typical psychological thriller. There's no predictable storyline, no sweaty close-ups of despair, no screams that echo. The eeriness that sticks with you in this film comes from the realism of how the mind games are presented.

Set in a well-to-do suburb in Northern Virginia, the film follows Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an all-star high school athlete and lauded debater whose white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) adopted him as a child from war-torn Eritrea. Raising him to succeed, his community ultimately considers him to be the poster child of the American Dream. His teacher, Ms. Wilson, (Octavia Spencer) then makes a shocking discovery in his locker, where Luce's reputation gets called into question and where the mind games begin. By the end, it's left up to the viewer to determine whether he's truly at fault or if his teacher is preying on dangerous stereotypes.

LUCE was initially a stage play written by JC Lee and made its debut at the Lincoln Center back in 2013, when he was fresh out of graduate school. Taking on the challenge from his professor to write a "grown-up play," a departure from his quirky, sci-fi works, he revisited a scene he wrote while working in public schools in San Francisco.

"I had met a lot of very well-meaning white parents whose politics and what they actually did in their behavior were sometimes not always the same thing," Lee explains. "And I found that the distance between those two things were very interesting."

Director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox) came across Lee's script from Brian Grazer and Kim Roth at Imagine Entertainment while working on another film there. He knew this would translate well for the big screen because of how the film approaches race and identity in a non-prescriptive way. "There's an easy, digestible synthesis of it all—but the world doesn't work that way," Onah says.

In the conversation below, we go even more in depth with JC Lee and Julius Onah as they touch on how they tapped into their formative experiences to navigate the themes in the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: What was the response to the play once it was initially presented?

JC Lee: The most vivid memory I have was the very first reading we did of the play at Juilliard. It was for the entire drama division. And when the play ended, the place erupted. People were really, really triggered. Some students were getting up and saying, "This play is the study of evil. This is about how evil manifests in everyday people." A lot of students of color were standing up and saying, "This is about a kid who's had an unfair burden put on him and he's fighting for what he believes in." It actually caused almost a physical fight in the classroom.

Julius Onah: And make sure you tell them a little bit about the ending of the play, though, maybe?

JC Lee: Oh, in the original ending of the play, Harriet goes to check her desk and the fireworks explode, and Harriet goes to the hospital. It's a much more violent ending—so it was really shocking to people. I had no idea that the play was going to provoke that kind of response. I think what we tried to do in adapting it into the film was to protect and to preserve the stuff about the story that made it feel dangerous and try to explore it in a deeper way.

Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of NEON.

Aside from perception, identity is also an overarching theme in the film, where it looks into how complex it can be to be black in America, to be an immigrant, and then in Luce's context, to be a child soldier who was adopted by a white family in northern Virginia. Growing up in a D.C. suburb, it wasn't until leaving there that I realized the 'diverse suburb' can be an oxymoron. Reflecting on your experiences growing up, how were you able to navigate those themes throughout the film?

JC Lee: I'm multiracial. I have a lot of different ethnicities in me. My family's very, very diverse. And so, I grew up here in the city on the Lower East Side. The funny thing about New York is it's incredibly diverse, but every community has its sort of niche. And I learned at a very early age that I could navigate all of those communities because they just assumed I was part of them. And I could learn their vocabularies, learn their anxieties. It made me very good at code-switching at an early age. It made me very good at understanding how I am perceived in the world, and how I could use that to my advantage. That if white people are nervous around a certain kind of person, I can make white people feel better about me hanging out with them. And then they got to feel good because, here's their brown friend. And I got to feel good because, "Look, I'm hanging out with these white guys," right?

And so I identified with Luce in that way, I think. When you're coming into a group like that and you have those antennae up, you can see that a lot of what people believe is premised on a feeling— a feeling of belonging, a feeling that, "These are my people and those are not my people." And, I'm always interested in smart people who believe a thing, thinking they believe it for one reason but then driving the car down that road and realizing that that's not actually reason they believe it. They believe it because it makes them feel a part of something.

I think part of what makes LUCE work as a film is that everyone has that. Everyone has a set of beliefs. And fundamentally, they believe themselves to be good. And they are, on some level. But that, when you drive the car of an ideology to it's inevitable conclusion, it tends to leave you in a bad place. And so, I think that part of my experience growing up was all about learning that and unpacking that. I think writing the film was processing it, for me, in some ways.

Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of NEON.

Julius Onah: Much like JC, I had my own journey navigating multiple identities. I was born in Nigeria, moved to Arlington, Virginia when I was 10, lived in the D.C./Virginia area. My dad was an ambassador. There was a version of my life, or a portion of my life where I had privilege, and it was akin to Luce living with that white family, and then, in a predominantly white community when I was in public school in Arlington. After my dad left, it was us kids with my mom and we were in a difficult immigration situation. I had a full year where I was undocumented—I couldn't work. I was working as a busboy under the table. When I was in high school, I remember I got a welfare gift. We were living in lower-income housing and I remember wearing Tommy Hilfiger in high school was a huge deal, I got a Tommy Hoodie.

Like, JC, I had to navigate these different environments and contexts. I would see how people would treat me, "Oh, you're the distinguished Ambassador's son" to "Oh, you're the kid who's receiving a welfare gift. You can't afford to get lunch at school, so you're going over to your friend's house to eat lunch. And how come you're there for dinner, too?" So having all those different experiences and realizing what masks you need to put on to be accepted became a big part of my life even beyond high school, and into college.

The psychological, emotional experience of living your life that way and the boxes that people put you into, and then the privilege you have as an extent of it, I really identified with DeShaun as much as I identified with Luce. Because I had lived both of those lives and seen a version of, like, "When I fucked up as one person, then you're done." But, when I'm the other person, "Oh, well, maybe I'll get a few more opportunities."

Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of NEON.

In closing, have either of you ever felt the sense of being very hyper aware of how you exist in the world? And has there ever been a point where you've felt the urge to be done doing that?

Julius Onah: There's never been a point of saying, "I'm done," at least for me—because I don't think you can be. And that's also part of the point of that final shot, it's like, "Well what is Luce running to? And what is he running from?" And if anything, it's part of what Harriet is trying to help him understand that, "You're never going to be done, not now." The work that this country needs to do and this culture needs to do, to get to a place where the Luces of the world have access to full spectrum of humanity, and get to define themselves on their own terms, whether you're black, or a woman, or you're gay, or whatever the case might be, for any of us who are in a marginalized identity, or a historically marginalized identity, we don't have that privilege.

So, you're going to always have to do that work. At least for me, personally, I don't feel like it's ever changed. I had an experience working out in Hollywood where I very much so, acutely, got to feel what that is like. And here I was thinking, "Okay, I've achieved a certain degree of success. And now, I'm in a mantle of leadership. I'm a director of a certain kind of project." And you see that even when you are afforded a certain degree of power, there is a box that people can put you in that quickly undermines that.

JC Lee: It's so funny because I just had a meeting with a pretty high-level producer. And I sit down to talk about this project, and the first thing out of this guy's mouth was like, "So what are you?" And I was like, "I'm used to answering that question, I've answered that question my whole life." But you think at a certain point, you're like, "I'm an adult now, I'm a professional. And yet, you still have an impulse to reduce me to something you can understand." Which again, I understand that impulse, but it's wild when you're like, "Wow, I'm going to do this forever."

Julius Onah: You're going to do it forever. It's not going to end.

JC Lee: It's never going to end.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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