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Interview With 'Luce' Filmmaker


TV producer Ali Rosen talks about what women in their 20s should be thinking about if they want to, quote-unquote, "have it all."


MARTIN: Luce is the title character in a new film about one of those high school students who seem to have it all. He's a track star, a debate champ, super cute, and everybody seems to like him. So when Luce's teacher, Harriet Wilson, reads an essay of his that she finds disturbingly tolerant of violence, she decides to search Luce's locker, and when she searches the locker, she finds illegal fireworks, which sends her straight to Luce's mother. His mother's questioning doesn't reveal much about the fireworks but instead quite a bit about the pressure he feels as a young black man in a largely white world being primed for success.


KELVIN HARRISON JR: (As Luce Edgar) I told you the kind of person Wilson is. You don't conform to what she wants, and suddenly, you're the enemy.

NAOMI WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) Look. I know it can seem unfair how much people expect of you.

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) You don't, though. You can't. And sometimes, I'm working so hard to keep this all together, it feels like it'll all just...

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) What? Just what?

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) I can't be perfect.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) No one expects you to be perfect.

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) Wilson does.

HARRISON: (As Amy Edgar) Believe it or not, she's just trying to protect you.

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) She's trying to protect the idea of me, same as you and him.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) That's not fair.

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) Unfair doesn't make it untrue.

MARTIN: "Luce" was adapted from the 2013 play of the same name by J.C. Lee. It premiered at Sundance to rave reviews. It was directed and co-written for screen by Julius Onah, who is with us now from NPR West in Culver City.

Welcome. Congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.

JULIUS ONAH: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I need to point out that this is a thriller, but there's no bloody knife or anything of that sort. So what makes it a thriller?

ONAH: I was so excited to make a movie that used ideas and language to move it forward. So what you don't know - especially what you don't know about Luce, what you don't know about his circumstances and his world and environment - is what creates the thrills of the storytelling. So as you advance forward and learn more and more about the situation, it hopefully upends your expectations of who he is and who this entire community is. And so what drives the thriller aspect of it are the ideas and the information and the way they're debated and doled out.

MARTIN: So here's what you can't see. Luce is of color. He was - in the story, he was adopted from Eritrea. He was conditioned to be a child soldier there. He was adopted by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, who are playing this, you know, quintessential well-intentioned, liberal white couple. And Ms. Wilson, the teacher that he's complaining about there, played by Octavia Spencer, is black. So why was this an important dynamic in the film?

ONAH: It was a very important dynamic because I wanted to explore the generational rift between Luce and Harriet. And this was obviously in the play. But what I loved about that was it gave an opportunity to explore and have a conversation around how blackness is defined and also to have a real conversation around what kind of progress we have and haven't made in the course of the last 40, 50, 60 years.

Harriet is a product of the liberal revolution of the '60s, of civil rights and certain attitudes towards what it means to exist out in the world as a black person in a dominant white society. She is someone who, you know, most would describe as subscribing to respectability politics about who you have to be in order to survive. And ultimately, there's this existential debate between her and Luce, who is trying to test out theories about who he can be in this world and asking a really, really important question about who you get to be and what kind of progress you can make beyond the generation that came before you? And that's really at the heart of the conflict between these two characters.

MARTIN: In the film, Luce is constantly being compared to another classmate, DeShaun - you know, a white friend of Luce's as - even though they're both black, they they're different because, quote, "he's, like, black-black." And I figured you might want to tell me a little bit about that because you are from Virginia. You're from this area where the film is set - in Arlington, Va., which is a suburb right outside Washington, D.C. That sounds like so much the kind of thing that somebody would actually say to somebody. It does make me wonder whether somebody said that to you.

ONAH: Somebody absolutely did say that to me. That happened. You know, I grew up in Arlington, and I went to college - sorry, to high school at Washington-Lee - now Washington-Liberty High School, which that's another thing to unpack there.

MARTIN: That's a whole other thing, right?

ONAH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: That's a whole other thing.

ONAH: That's a whole other thing to unpack. And during my senior year, in a chemistry class - it was another student - in fact, a student of color who was Filipino American. Somehow, the issue of race came up, and she said, well, Julius isn't black. And then a conversation proceeded to continue about, you know, how I wasn't black. And then everybody just swiftly moved on as if nothing had just happened.

And it's something that at that time, you know, growing up the way I grew up, I knew something didn't feel right, but I didn't know what didn't feel right about it. And, you know, I wasn't as self-aware and as well-read as Luce was. But as I got older and looked back at the moment and unpacked it, it spoke volumes to me. And as I was adapting the screenplay with J.C., it was a scene that, you know, I felt was important to have in the film.

MARTIN: Well, and this whole question of the relationships and, you know, how you get treated and how people decide, you know, who you are, which category of black you are - you know, black-black or Obama-like black. I mean, there's a scene with DeShaun.


ASTRO: (As DeShaun Meeks) Real talk, how many times you come to my crib and blaze? You know, Wilson finds weed in my locker, and now I'm off the team. That's my scholarship gone. Why me and not you, my [expletive]? Answer the question - why me and not you?

HARRISON: (As Luce Edgar) I mean, I don't know.

ASTRO: (As DeShaun Meeks) You don't know. You know exactly what the [expletive] I'm talking about, [expletive]. It's because they want you to win. Otherwise, all they little old up-by-your-own-bootstraps [expletive] - it don't apply. But then again, why am I tripping? Got to have at least one Obama, right?

MARTIN: But the interesting thing about this is that it's not just these young black men vs. everybody else, and it's not just between them and what this does to them. It's about the adults, right? It's about Ms. Wilson and her attitudes about them and who they're supposed to be and Luce's adoptive white parents and who they think he is and who they're supposed to be.

I thought that was a really interesting story, too, because, you know, as you can imagine, like the conservative media who've reviewed the film love the fact that they're liberals who get their, you know, comeuppance. But there's this one moment in the film where he describes how they changed his name because they couldn't pronounce his name. When they adopted him - and I'm imagining that people are going to feel very differently about that depending on who they are, right, and where they...

ONAH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Came from. Because...

ONAH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, as it's described in the film, Luce is - you know, means, you know, light. So you could see that as, you know, the inner light. But for me - I don't know. People from certain backgrounds where somebody taking your name from you has some very specific meaning and feelings attached...

ONAH: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...To that. And I was curious about what you're trying to say with the whiteness of the parents and their absolute conviction that they're doing the right thing.

ONAH: Well, it's a complex question to navigate. You know, part of what was compelling to me about the play and part of what J.C. and I wanted to continue to do with the movie was to ask these difficult questions about what it means to be a, quote-unquote, "other" in a society that's not built for your existence. And as we continue to have this very fraught conversation about identity right now, part of that is recognizing so many of the spaces that exist are ones that are created for one dominant group - going back to this myth of what post-racialism would look like if somebody like Barack Obama became president, right? A big part of that was not actually recognizing these spaces that we exist in and what needed to change.

There was this thinking that if you engage in this symbolic gesture, and you put on one person the entire set of expectation of progress or one act the expectation of progress, it absolves you of guilt, and it becomes the work that needs to be done without actually doing the real work. And in some ways, we're seeing that play out in the microcosm of who Luce is. If we give this young person our love, if we change his name, if he represents this incredible symbol of progress - and also, we get a reflected glory from what he becomes because of what we've done, then we don't have to do the real work of unpacking these very complex and difficult situations.

We don't have to do the real work of looking at the society and the spaces that we have that are still so problematic and intolerant and unjust. We can just say, well, here's this gesture to help us move forward. So we were very interested in that. But, that said, it doesn't mean these parents don't have a love for their child. It doesn't mean these parents aren't trying to do the right thing. It can be more than one thing at once.

So the question we wanted to ask was, at what point does it stop just being an act of love and something one is trying to do and become something performative? And at what point do we also have to start to recognize the real work that needs to be done? And I think all we have to do is look at who ended up in the White House after Obama to know why we need to do the work that needs to be done.

MARTIN: That was Julius Onah. He is the director and the co-writer of "Luce." He was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, Calif. The new film "Luce" is in theaters across the country.

Julius Onah, thank you so much for joining us.

ONAH: Thank you so much. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBIITE OF RHYE SONG, "PHOENIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.