I can’t be perfect.
So much of who we are and what we become relies on perception. Race, gender, religion, sexuality, language, culture, education, and socio-economic standing all play a role because we’re perceived by those like us and those not. We therefore exist in a tenuous bubble of expectations wherein normalcy is a razor-thin line between sainthood and monstrousness. One side waits to anoint us while patting itself on the back for assisting our ascent upwards to meet our potential. The other patiently bides its time until we’re revealed as the charlatans they knew we were—our wolf in sheep’s clothing deceiving with every breath taken. It eventually feels as though our lives aren’t even ours. Whoever labels us the loudest ultimately wins because we become too fatigued to prove otherwise.
Sometimes it’s blatantly played out like when a friend of mine got so fed up with his parents treating him like a criminal that he resigned himself to become what they thought simply because he felt he should at least be having “fun” if a punishment was coming down anyway. Sometimes it’s subtler with an involuntary prejudice like a teacher getting on his soapbox to chastise his troublemakers when a message to send a student to the principal arrives only to discover his prized pupil was the guilty party instead. We’re so quick to judge on instinct and unapologetically so because we live in a reactionary society where the benefit of the doubt only extends so far and to too few. For some people, each day is a kangaroo court.
What must be understood, however, is that those people aren’t solely defendants in this scenario. They’re often also their own judge, jury, and prosecution, running themselves through a maze of indecision, regret, guilt, and indignation. It’s this impossible place—this invisible prison suffocating us as our infinite jailors try to squeeze us like Play-Doh through a ready-made hole serving to transform us into whatever shape these tastemakers decide we fit—that playwright J.C. Lee has brought to life on-screen with Luce alongside the help of co-writer/director Julius Onah. They put a boy on trial with no evidence other than his accusers’ own fears because half-truths and assumptions will always be easier to embrace than simple explanations rendered complex by the inherent bias American entitlement provides as a privilege.
And they throw the kitchen sink not only at Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but also his parents (Naomi Watts‘ Amy and Tim Roth‘s Peter) and his history teacher (Octavia Spencer‘s Harriet Wilson). He’s the superstar academic, athlete, and friend—the guy both kids and adults turn to when trouble needs ironing out. But he’s also a refugee from a war-torn Eritrea that the Edgars adopted a decade ago and endured years of therapy, struggles, and time to earn his trust as parents and help set him up for success in this brand new world. Luce is therefore a Black teen amongst many who’s put on a pedestal because of his journey. He’s the poster child for so-called American values thanks to an affluent home and prestigious school.
His principal (Norbert Leo Butz) sees him as a mascot the school can gain from as much or more than he from it. His parents flaunt him as a product of their perseverance and ideals, blinded by the almost uninterrupted success he’s achieved after evolving from child soldier to community pillar to realize they’ve yet to acknowledge the war waging in their world. And his teacher sees him as a political symbol the other Black kids under her watch need to aspire towards the greatness their country doesn’t present them as easily as their White classmates. They each ask so much of him and he gives them exactly what they want. What happens, though, when what they’ve asked exposes just how fragile their trust in him always was?
Suddenly the drive that’s made Luce captain of his track team and valedictorian of his graduating class becomes warped in the minds of those who only recently treated it as his best virtue. It starts with an assignment Ms. Wilson admits was flawlessly executed but contextually problematic … for her. Would she have batted an eye at the paper’s incendiary content if it were written by a “silver spoon” that’s never left his/her country club? Or is it Luce’s history that gives her pause because of what it adds to the violent words of revolution typed and double-spaced on the page? She’s not only profiling him based on conjecture, however. She’s also giving him a hypocritical benefit of the doubt when more evidence risks discovering she was correct.
It’s hypocritical because she didn’t extend the same leniency to another Black boy she deemed less worthy. Just as Luce is an example of what Ms. Wilson knows is possible for her race, DeShaun Meeks (Astro) serves as a cautionary tale to push those on the fence towards the former’s path. She’s thus playing with these boys’ lives and to a certain extent that’s exactly what she should do. Does that make it right? No. As she teaches in her own classroom, legality is often a tricky issue when the law itself is unjust. So even though Ms. Wilson had the “right” to search Luce’s locker and invade his diminished privacy as a juvenile with limited rights inside an establishment she ostensibly “runs,” she’s not absolved of fault.
Neither are Luce’s parents for listening and drawing their own prejudiced conclusions before asking their son his side of the story. Like Ms. Wilson, they accept his guilt as fact without sufficient evidence and choose to weigh the benefit of holding him accountable against the harm of derailing his pristine trajectory. Suddenly they question their own choices, regrets, and sacrifices until one potential mistake becomes explosive enough to tear down years of work creating the infallible reputation this boy earned. And as soon as Luce gets wind of the secretive drama unfolding behind his back, he can’t help himself from wondering if he’s ever been more than a pawn in some experiment focusing upon his worth as an object rather than as an autonomous human being.
Onah and Lee open the floodgates as rumors start holding more importance than truth and external prognosticators more value than primary sources. We delve deeper into the pressures Luce faces and those of his friends (Andrea Bang‘s Stephanie Kim for one) as they’re used and abused to fit adults’ personal agendas as egregiously as him. Mental illness, rape, verbal threats, vandalism, emotional hijacking, victim blaming, and more enters the fray until we realize how insidiously ingrained and powerful presumptions are within our society. The filmmakers are quick to explain, however, that the play was produced in 2013 with the adaptation process beginning long before Trump’s presidency. It’s not therefore about his America. It’s about the America that continues wreaking havoc on itself—the America that got him elected.
Accomplishing this means the narrative must ensure every detail possesses a duality of meaning from frame one. Showing a brown bag drop into a locker without any clue as to who’s doing the dropping is a conscious decision by Onah because ownership proves crucial to what’s next. Lies are eventually told, but the first two-thirds of the run-time must be taken at face value because we need to believe Luce to understand how willing the adults are to twist themselves into knots. Watts and Spencer are fantastic throughout this process, but Harrison Jr. steals the show once they force him to turn his heart-dropping disappointment at their lack of faith to the (sociopathic?) determination necessary for vindication. And in the end we discover this truth: innocence is obsolete.
 Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) in LUCE. (©jonpack)
 Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) in LUCE (©jonpack)
 Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) and Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in LUCE (©jonpack)