Luce is much less interested in sentimentality than those films, but it does capture the ambiguities of life, highlighting the way that we ram into each other, forever altering the lives of everyone around us. It's a small story with massive implications that doesn't shoulder its burden lightly. I gleaned as much when I interviewed director Julius Onah and screenwriter J.C. Lee ahead of the film's limited release. The film, which is based on a stage play originally written by Lee, comes from the complexity of identity that people of color must always navigate. For Lee, who is biracial, that means code switching between different groups. "I identify with Luce in that way," Lee said during our interview. "The idea of being the young kid of color who has to shoulder the burden of the family and the burden of multiple communities and then perform for white people and be like, 'Look! I'm great! I'm everything you want me to be!'"
This experience was also touched on last year in George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give, but has been otherwise under-explored in current cinema as the performance of necessity it truly is for many black teens. Luce is preoccupied with the ramifications of that performance, emotionally and socially. Onah, who was born in Nigeria and moved to Arlington, Virginia, where Luce is set, explained that despite their different backgrounds, he and Lee could relate on "that idea of constantly shifting my identity and putting on a different mask," Onah said. "There were days I was a Nigerian kid, days when I was an African-American, days when I was an immigrant."
There are shades of both Lee and Onah's experience in Luce. He is both an immigrant and raised by nonblack parents. Luce (Harrison Jr.) is an Obama-esque golden child who is beginning to feel the pressure of his modern citizenship. His teacher Harriet (Spencer) holds him to impossibly high standards that he interprets as unfair. He pushes against this by making life more difficult for Harriet, all while trying to covertly challenge her worldview. Their struggle is one steeped in respectability politics -- Luce wants to be an individual, while Harriet believes he has responsibilities that go beyond his own desires. To her, if a perfect boy like Luce can't keep it together, there's no hope for the community. The filmmakers describe the conflict as generational, a dynamic Lee says is rarely explored in film. "I was really interested in this idea that Luce has this notion about how he ought to be able to operate in the world and how Harriet's entire history, life and experience taught her that sort of freedom isn't possible," he said. "She believes Luce should know and understand the systems of oppression in place that will confront him and come down on him."