Luce (film)

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Luce film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJulius Onah
Written by
  • J.C. Lee
  • Julius Onah
Based onLuce
by J.C. Lee
Produced by
  • John Baker
  • Julius Onah
  • Andrew Yang
CinematographyLarkin Seiple
Edited byMadeleine Gavin
Music by
Distributed byNeon
Release dates
  • January 27, 2019 (2019-01-27) (Sundance)
  • August 2, 2019 (2019-08-02) (United States)
Running time
109 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.3 million[2][3]

Luce is a 2019 American social thriller drama film directed, co-produced, and co-written by Julius Onah. It stars Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Tim Roth. The film was based on the play of the same name by J.C. Lee, and tells the story of a couple (Watts & Roth) forced to reconsider their marriage and their family after an extremely disturbing essay written by their adopted son (Harrison Jr.) is brought to their attention by his teacher (Spencer).

Principal photography took place in New York and Los Angeles, California and the film was shot on 35mm film.

Luce had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019 and was released in cinemas on August 2, 2019 by NEON.[4] It received positive reviews from critics, who praised the cast's performances, Onah's direction, the writing, and the film's themes. The film made over $2.3 million worldwide.

The film received multiple nominations from the various award organizations including the Black Reel Awards and various critics organizations, including the Hollywood Critics Association and the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards.


Born in war-torn Eritrea and adopted in the United States, Luce Edgar is an all-star high school athlete and accomplished public speaker who is adored by other school students and his adoptive parents, Peter and Amy Edgar. However, he has animosity towards his history teacher, Harriet Wilson, who got his friend DeShaun kicked off the running team after finding marijuana in his locker and calling the police.

Harriet calls Amy to school for a meeting and shows her Luce's assignment in which, asked to write from the perspective of a historical figure, he chose political revolutionary Frantz Fanon and argued that colonialism can be overcome through violence. Harriet is concerned, because Luce was a child soldier before coming to America, and someone with his background writing this could cause trouble. Harriet also tells Amy that she went through Luce's locker and found a bag of illegal and dangerous fireworks.

Amy shows Peter the paper and the fireworks; both are unsettled but decide to hide them and not say anything to Luce. When asked about Harriet, Luce accuses her of singling out students to make a point, such as often using Stephanie Kim, a classmate rumored to have been sexually abused at a party while drunk, as an example of a victimized woman suffering in silence. Luce is Harriet's shining example of a star black student, but he argues that he does not want to be tokenized. Luce finds the hidden paper and fireworks.

The next day, Luce and Harriet discuss his paper. He acknowledges his wording but says he just did what the assignment asked, disavowing any true belief in violence. He makes a comment about fireworks that Harriet interprets as a threat, and she notifies Peter. He and Amy confront Luce. He explains that the track team members share lockers and the fireworks are not his. Peter thinks Luce is lying, but Amy is not sure what to believe.

Harriet and her sister Rosemary, who suffers from an unspecified mental illness, have an encounter with Luce that unsettles Harriet. Later that night, Harriet finds Rosemary has trashed the house. She takes her sister back to the "doctor" because she is too unstable to live in Harriet's home. At a car wash fundraiser, Luce promises DeShaun that he will make things right. Meanwhile, Amy and Stephanie meet at a coffee shop. Stephanie says that she used to date Luce, which Amy never knew, but they broke up. Stephanie uncomfortably describes being sexually assaulted at a party by several boys but denies Luce's involvement, saying he claimed to have stopped them and comforted her after she awoke. Luce later learns from Stephanie about the visit.

The next day Rosemary arrives at the school to look for Harriet and has a breakdown, asking if Harriet is ashamed of her and stripping naked in front of Harriet, Luce, and other students before she is tasered and apprehended by police. Luce shows a video of the incident to Amy and Peter, disturbing them. Harriet's home is vandalized that night, and Stephanie arrives shortly after to tell Harriet that Luce sexually assaulted her. Harriet informs Principal Dan Towson, and a meeting is organized with them, Luce, and his parents, with Stephanie waiting in another room. Luce quickly disproves Harriet's accusations with video evidence of his whereabouts, and Harriet's harsh questions quickly make Amy and Peter take their son's side over hers. Amy lies that she only spoke to Harriet on the phone and denies knowledge of the fireworks. Harriet discovers that Stephanie has left before she could repeat her accusation to Towson. Towson accepts Amy's claims, and the meeting ends despite Harriet still trying to argue her side.

At night, exploding fireworks inside Harriet's desk cause a fire. Towson puts Harriet on a leave of absence pending investigation due to heavy suspicion against her. After learning of the incident, Amy discovers in horror that the fireworks in their home are gone. Peter believes Luce was involved, but Amy insists that they will stand up for their son and not defend Harriet.

Luce turns up at Harriet's with a bunch of flowers, because he feels uncomfortable about her losing her job. He confronts Harriet about ruining DeShaun's athletic career and putting Luce on a pedestal, believing she stereotyped them. She defends her position and claims that it was America that stereotyped them, and she was trying to protect them. She accuses Luce of being hypocritical by using other black students to "run his errands" so he wouldn't get caught. Luce argues "that is not the same thing" but does not deny the facts he is accused of. After that, Harriet orders him out of her house.

Amy follows Luce to a hideout where he has sex with Stephanie, who sees Amy outside the window but does not react. When Amy returns home to where she had hidden the fireworks, Luce arrives and reconciles with her. Later, Luce gives a speech at school, thanking Amy and Peter for raising him and saying how lucky he feels to be an American, with the chance to start over and tell his own story. Afterwards, Luce goes on a jog, during which his face contorts with rage.



In November 2017, it was announced Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Tim Roth had joined the cast of the film, with Julius Onah directing from a screenplay by himself and JC Lee. John Baker, Onah, and Andrew Yang served as producers on the film with Rob Feng, Amber Wang, and Lee served as executive producers under their Dream Factory Group banner.[5] In December 2017, Brian Bradley, also known as Stro, joined the cast of the film.[6] Onah spoke about the importance of rehearsal with actors to his process. The actors rehearsed with each other before filming to create deeper familiarity, this includes a rehearsal in which all the young actors joined up in New York to hang out and develop a deeper backstory and understanding of their characters.[7] The film was shot on 35mm film.


The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019.[8] Shortly after, NEON & Topic Studios acquired distribution rights to the film.[9] It was released on August 2, 2019.[10]


On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 162 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Luce brings a stellar ensemble to bear on a satisfyingly complex story that addresses its timely themes in thought-provoking fashion."[11] On Metacritic, the film holds a weighted average score of 72 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[12]

The Guardian's Benjamin Lee said of Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s performance, "It's an utterly mesmeric turn, filled with crushing vulnerability and insidious menace, in a brutal, dramatically explosive film that challenges preconceptions and leaves us with difficult, troubling questions to consider."[13] Critic Brian Tallerico of praised the film, commenting, "It reminded me of early Mamet work although with a commentary on race he could never attempt. All of this, and it’s got one of the best ensemble performances of Sundance 2019. This is one to watch for." He went on to specifically praise Harrison Jr.'s performance as "the real deal... flat out brilliant."[14]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Black Reel Awards February 7, 2019 Outstanding Director Julius Onah Nominated
Outstanding Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer Nominated
Outstanding Screenplay J.C. Lee and Julius Onah Nominated
Outstanding Emerging Director Julius Onah Nominated
Outstanding Independent Feature Julius Onah, John Baker and Andrew Yang Nominated
Central Ohio Film Critics Association December 14, 2019 Actor of the Year Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle Awards February 2, 2019 Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Julius Onah and J.C. Lee Nominated
Chlotrudis Awards 2020 Best Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay J.C. Lee and Julius Onah Won
Film Independent Spirit Awards February 8, 2020 Best Director Julius Onah Nominated
Best Male Lead Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Best Supporting Female Octavia Spencer Nominated
Georgia Film Critics Association January 10, 2020 Breakthrough Award Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Greater Western New York Film Critics Association Awards 2020 Best Picture Luce Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay J.C. Lee and Julius Onah Nominated
Hollywood Critics Association January 9, 2020 Best Independent Film Luce Nominated
NAACP Image Awards February 22, 2020 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Octavia Spencer Nominated
International Online Cinema Awards 2020 Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer Nominated
New York Film Critics, Online December 7, 2019 Breakthrough Performance Kelvin Harrison Jr. Won
Online Film & Television Association February 2, 2020 Best Breakthrough Performance: Male Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards December 9, 2019 Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay J.C. Lee and Julius Onah Won
Breakthrough Artist Kelvin Harrison Jr. Nominated
Sundance Film Festival February 1, 2020 U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize Julius Onah Nominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Luce". Sundance Film Festival. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  2. ^ "Luce (2019)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
  3. ^ "Luce (2019)". The Numbers. IMDb. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
  4. ^ "Julius Onah's Thriller 'Luce' Sells To NEON & Topic Studios – Sundance". Deadline Hollywood.
  5. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (November 9, 2017). "Dream Factory Launches With 'Luce': Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth Kelvin Harrison Jr. Head Cast". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  6. ^ N'Duka, Amanda (December 12, 2017). "Ian Chen & Jovan Armand Join 'Shazam!', Brian 'Astro' Bradley Jr. Cast In 'Luce'". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  7. ^ Buder, Emily. "The 'Independent Filmmaking Miracle' of 'Luce'". No Film School.
  8. ^ "Sundance Unveils Politics-Heavy Lineup Featuring Ocasio-Cortez Doc, Feinstein Drama". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  9. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony (January 30, 2019). "Julius Onah's Thriller 'Luce' Sells To NEON & Topic Studios – Sundance". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  10. ^ "Luce". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  11. ^ "Luce (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved October 10, 2021.
  12. ^ "Luce reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved December 10, 2019.
  13. ^ Lee, Benjamin (January 30, 2019). "Outside the multiplex: the best smaller films to see in the US this summer". The Guardian.
  14. ^ "Sundance 2019: Luce, Big Time Adolescence, Them That Follow".

External links[edit]