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."