by director/co-writer Julius Onah
The moment I read the last words of JC Lee’s powerful play Luce, I knew I wanted to turn it into a film. That was in the summer of 2014. As I embarked on the process of translating the play to a film, I realized the journey I’d been on with this story had begun many years ago when I immigrated to the United States in 1993. Many of the questions I’d asked myself as I struggled in shaping an identity in America were at the core of what this story was seeking to explore. Questions about being an African and becoming an African-American. About traveling the world as the son of a Nigerian diplomat father yet also being the son of a mother who got by working shifts at McDonald’s to help make ends meet. And finally pursuing the American dream while busing tables as an undocumented immigrant in New York to eventually experiencing a warped version of that dream that brought into painful clarity how I was viewed as a black director while working into the studio system in Los Angeles. The further I went into the process on Luce, the more I felt it was important to ask these questions as truthfully and uncompromisingly as possible.
Luce is a film about power, privilege and perception. It seeks to examine how these conditions are negotiated in the ever complex and interconnected multi-cultural societies we live in. Our central figure, Luce Edgar, is a former child soldier from Eritrea who finds himself living at the meeting point of his personal experience and the history and expectations thrust upon him after being adopted by white parents in suburban Arlington, Virginia. As he struggles to define himself, the truth of who he is or isn’t becomes critical to the ideas the film seeks to explore. This mystery becomes the engine of the story and the unexpectedness of this character drives the filmmaking on every level: in tone, style, music, camera, and overall design. But all of this, negotiating my personal experience and discovering how to tell this story, is in service of the question of identity that has become central to modern life.
As we all grapple with how we organize our societies across class, gender, race, sexuality and the myriad facets of our shared humanity, this is a story that invites the audience to explore how the ways we view each other contribute to the question of who truly has the power to define themselves in our world today. It asks us to cast aside assumptions or arrogance about what we believe we know in order to be able to stand outside our perspective. In the heated cultural and political moment we’re in, it feels even more essential to ask ourselves the hard questions that can create true progress as our country grapples with how to reimagine itself and what it means to be an American. Framing the themes of the story through questions felt like the most honest way to consider the roles we all play in preserving systems of power that foster hatred and injustice while also preventing many of us from having access to the full spectrum of humanity.