(director/writer: Julius Onah; screenwriter: J. C. Lee; cinematographer: Larkin Seiple; editor: Madeleine Gavin; music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury; cast: Naomi Watts (Amy Edgar), Tim Roth (Peter Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Harriet Wilson), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce), Andrea Berg ( Stephanie Kim), Norbert Leo Butz ( Principal Dan Towson), Astro (DeShaun Meeks); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Andrew Yang; Neon; 2019)
“Its racial aspects make for uncomfortable viewing.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It premiered at this year’s Sundance and then played at theTribeca Film Festival.
Nigerian-American director Julius Onah (“Brilliance”/”The Cloverfield Paradox”) more than adequately adapts J. C. Lee’s 2013 Off-Broadway play, with Lee as co-writer of the screenplay with Onah. It’s a sharp-edged and difficult film to fully contemplate that tries to say something nuanced about racism. It has theatrical dialogue more suited for a play than a film (which is not really a problem since the dialogue is so refreshing). Though it doesn’t work for me when it turns to being a thriller, nevertheless its racial aspects make for uncomfortable viewing.
The Arlington, Virginia, residing Edgars are a well-off white married couple–the doctor is Amy (Naomi Watts) and the financier is her hubby Peter (Tim Roth). Ten years ago they adopted a 7-year-old black male child from war-torn Eritea (where he was raised to be a child soldier). That child, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is now in high school and after years in therapy to deal with the effects of his violent childhood he has exceeded the adopted parents’ expectations by becoming a popular model student, all-star athlete and school valedictorian in the predominantly white Virginia high school, where he is held up with pride by the community for his accomplishments as a black student.
When we observe Luce alone, we are led to believe he must work harder than his privileged white classmates to get where he is. In a gripping scene, we catch Luce preparing to give a school speech in an empty school auditorium. His speech recalls his violent childhood in Africa and leads him to comment on how lucky he is to now be in a free country like America with a chance to become a somebody. The kid is freely crying.
The central point of the film becomes if we really know who Luce is and how deeply his negative childhood experiences affected him.
When Amy is called in to see Luce’s dedicated African-American history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), the teacher is concerned that Luce has been assigned to write an essay on a historical character and chooses the revolutionary black writer Frantz Fanon. He is someone who called for violence as an unavoidable part of decolonization. Luce’s fervent defense of the writer’s call to violence alarms his mentor teacher and leads to a search of his locker where she finds illegal fireworks.
Our perceptions of Luce quickly change, as we wonder if he could be a terrorist or have another agenda we might not be aware of, especially when the office of his suspicious history is torched and he’s a suspect.The film builds to a muddled resolution about what to make of Luce and what to make of things when it’s further uncovered Luce is not the perfect person we thought he was. It also hints at a subtle racism between the black child and his adoptive white parents, as they wonder what it would have been like to have their own child.
The main point it makes is that no one lives up to being viewed as a stereotype without being examined further and it’s therefore a big mistake to pander to generalities. If that’s what this film was about, a communication issue between the races, then I can applaud it more for what it infers than in how that point was executed. Though not completely convincing in its racial agenda presentation, it should be appreciated for giving us more complex things to think about when it comes to race relations and in trying to look for ways to make them better by being more open with each other.
REVIEWED ON 11/14/2019 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/