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A Tight Luce Suit

Updated on August 6, 2019

Theatrical Bones. Movie Meat.

There’s no drape in Kelvin Harrison, Jr.’s Luce suit.

Harrison, fresh from critical acclaim for It Comes at Night and Monster, fits tight into his title character.

It doesn’t take long to realize something is going to ooze out — or explode.

JC Lee, who co-wrote Luce with Nigerian-American director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox), presented Luce as a stage play at Lincoln Center in 2013.

Luce’s theatrical bones transfer well.

Racial problems plague American culture, but they weren't quite as raw when JC Lee's play was performed at NYC's Lincoln Center, back in 2013.
Racial problems plague American culture, but they weren't quite as raw when JC Lee's play was performed at NYC's Lincoln Center, back in 2013. | Source

This racial identity story bounces hard off the US's thinly-padded, gun-riddled racial issues.

The movie opens with the title character at the podium of a high school assembly. Seventeen-year-old Luce is an engaging public speaker, a stand-out student and track star who hangs out on the fringes, with less-than-savory friends.

Luce could be an example of how love and advantage can transform a child who spent the first decade of his life without either one of those things ... or, maybe not.

The audience absorbs Luce’s horrific beginnings, not from violent flashbacks, but from the look in Luce’s eyes and the resolve expressed by his adoptive mom Amy, played by Naomi Watts (Glass Castle, Birdman, Twin Peaks).

Rage-Repressed Teen ... or Renaissance Boy? Left to right: Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Naomi Watts.
Rage-Repressed Teen ... or Renaissance Boy? Left to right: Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Naomi Watts. | Source

A Poignant, Lonely Place

It was Amy’s idea, we find out, to become Tiger Mother for this young black panther.

Luce’s adoptive dad Peter, played by Tim Roth (Hateful Eight, Twin Peaks) loves his wife and son more for who they are than who the world pressures them to be.

For Roth’s character, it’s a poignant, lonely place.

Raising this “Renaissance Boy” took a toll on Amy and Peter’s marriage, but it's all been worth it. Look at him now.

Luce’s primal rage, Amy asserts, has been processed.

Or has it been frappéd?

High school history teacher Harriet Wilson, played “eyes first” by Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water, Hidden Figures) is Luce’s human blender.

Her blades start spinning right off: at a school event, Ms. Wilson offers a backhanded compliment to Amy and Peter, with a begrudging harrumph: “Luce is one of our best.”

Harriet Wilson is a complex foil for Luce, having been denied the advantages and accolades that make Luce’s back sore from all that patting. She’s a smart, tired black woman with an attitude and problems of her own.

Octavia Spencer as Harriet Wilson.
Octavia Spencer as Harriet Wilson. | Source

Luce's Standout Supporting Cast

Harriet Wilson’s emotionally challenged sister Rosemary, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake (Orange is the New Black) unabashedly loses it all, in front of a crowd of social-media savvy high schoolers.

Though her role is small, Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie is played with almost embarrassing aplomb by Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience, Playdate).

Much of Luce’s drama takes place in the dissonance between dialogue and expression: everyone’s fuse sparks, yet no one looks in their own pants for the fire.

Luce gets help from cinematographer Larkin Seiple, whose scenes are shot in angles that lend themselves to judging or being judged. Intimate scenes project the discomfort of eavesdropping.

The use of color also underscores, from Amy and Peter’s white kitchen and the black-and-white tile shower room at Luce’s school, to the red graffiti that’s scrawled on Miss Wilson’s yellow bungalow.


... Or Get Out.

Don’t expect a tight ending from Luce.

Though we are all victims and beneficiaries of expectations, it’s not just the economically oppressed, stereotyped Black Lives that Matter.

Luce, released nationwide August 2, puts its audience under pressure.

Squirm or Get Out.


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