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An Objective Subjectivity: Julius Onah and J.C. Lee on Adapting Luce, Code-Switching and Frantz Fanon

Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in Luce (Photo by Jon Pack)

Julius Onah’s Luce follows the story of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Black 17-year-old prodigy. Adopted at a young age from a war-torn country by two Caucasian parents, this straight-A valedictorian and all-star athlete is deemed perfect by everyone. After his teacher, Ms. Wilson, finds illegal items in his locker and becomes concerned over the submission of a violence-themed research paper, she contacts his parents. His adoptive parents start to question his actions, leading to his mother Amy uncovering a barrage of secrets held by her son. Adapted from the stage play of the same name by J.C. Lee, the film is a provocative psychological drama that speaks on relevant themes of tokenism, class, and identity through a multilayered script and bold direction that keeps the viewer guessing through the perception of the camera. 

With Onah and Lee, I discussed the process of adapting the play to a big screen and how it differs from other stage to film adaptations,  the importance of crafting the titular character from their personal life experiences and prepping the lead Kelvin Harrison Jr. for the role through watching tapes of Obama and Will Smith. 

Filmmaker: How was it preparing your lead Kelvin Harrison Jr. for the role of Luce after the play?

Lee: I can start with the play. I wrote [the play] back in 2011/2012; we did it in New York at Lincoln Center in 2013. It came out of a variety of experiences: being biracial, having to code-switch, having to jump into different groups and learn all of those anxieties and how to feel truthful in those situations. I remember when Julius showed me Kelvin’s audition tape and I got chills. I still get chills when I talk about it because it was so powerful and good. When he performed the scene with Naomi where he goes, “I either get to be a saint or a monster,” and you saw him so deftly navigate the nuances in that scene, it was all emotionally truthful. I just remember being like, “He’s the one man. He’s the guy.”

Onah: Yeah, that’s the way we all felt. J.C wrote a brilliant play and when I first came across the play, I knew by the last page I wanted to turn it into a movie. It was a process for us to finally get to the moment where we adapted it. Much like J.C, I’d had my own experience grappling with identity. I was born in Nigeria and moved to America—to Arlington, Virginia, where the film is set—when I was 10 years old. I was constantly shifting between, “Well, am I an African-American or am I an African?” From a class standpoint: part of my life, I was the son of a diplomat and an ambassador. The other part of my life, my mom worked in McDonald’s and I lived in subsidized housing. I was undocumented for a year and bussed tables here in the Lower East Side. I saw how I was treated in each one of these different contexts and the different masks I had to wear, the ways I had to code-switch to make myself acceptable to people. So, I felt very close to Luce’s experience in the same way J.C obviously did in birthing the character. Kelvin had his own versions of that experience growing up in New Orleans, going to an all private school. He was one of the few black people. He often tells this story: “When I went there, people would say, ‘We say yes, not yeah,’” and would ask what kind of job his parents had. Maybe their mother was a doctor or a lawyer, and his dad was just a teacher. So, he had felt that need as well to put on a certain mask to fit in, and he used that as fuel. 

Then there’s technical parts of it. I was a debater in high school, so I had Kelvin come to my office and we would practice how to stand at the podium, how to give the debate arguments, and how to be that intellectual version of the character. He read Frantz Fanon’s books. He read Black Skin, White Masks, he read The Wretched of the Earth. He wrote the actual paper that is in the movie—Octavia graded that paper and that’s the prop that they’re using in the film. The first time you see the paper in the film it was actually written by Kelvin. The art department, the props department came over and they were so excited. They had to get staples and they bought all these supplies. And I’m like, “Nope, the actor’s already got it.”

The other thing he did was look at real people who live a version of that character on the highest level. I had him look at tapes of both Barack Obama and Will Smith. When you think of the first black superstar in the world, you think of Will Smith. In fact, there wouldn’t be a Barack Obama without what Will accomplished, and then obviously [there’s] everything Obama accomplished in becoming the most powerful person in the world as a president of the United States as a Black man. We got him a dialect coach, and there was a very specific Nigerian-American writer who I had him listen to how that person talks to build a rhythm for Luce that was not quite American but also not quite African. He also had running and basketball lessons, because he wasn’t a natural athlete. All those things went to creating the character. That’s a lot of stuff for a young actor.

Filmmaker: Between the time when you wrote the play and the year we live in now, was there a revision period to bring it to our time?

Lee: No, it’s the same story. To me, it speaks to the resonance of the particular kind of story about race and class and identity that we were interested in exploring. [It’s] one that I think predates 2016, predates 2011. The sort of struggles that we have as people of color, as women, to try and have our voices heard and tell our full story and not be put in a box. I think that while it feels incredibly specific and resonant to now, it actually can exist through most of American history, because this is a country that has never quite fulfilled its promise to be what it has proclaimed to be. But the story of America is very infectious and makes us all grab onto it. The distance between that story and the reality and our attempts at being ourselves in the middle, that story feels timeless.

Filmmaker: How was it crafting something that was a play into this open world?

Onah: It’s a lot of fun when you have a great play to work from. That said—I think J.C was conscious of this—I was hyper-conscious of it, especially from a directing standpoint. There’s a lot of fantastic plays that turn into okay movies. People tend to be like: “I’ve got this great play. All I need to do is get these amazing actors, then just turn on the camera and that’s it.” And I never wanted it to feel like a play on film because I actually felt like that would be a disservice to the play. It’s a different medium. We were fortunate just by circumstance that I ended up writing the first draft. And I love the process of working with J.C., because he’s not pretentious. He obviously has an intimate understanding of what he creates and who these characters are. But in the adaptation process, we’re able to go back and forth in a really healthy way. Often I’m the one saying, “But that thing in the play, we got to keep it in.” And he’s like, “No, no, no.” What we care about is the end product, making sure we honor where it starts but then it’s also its own thing. From a directing standpoint, we shot the movie on 35 millimeter. We did a lot of long takes. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that is tough, with what happens to Octavia’s sister—that’s all in the long take. It’s a three minute long one-shot that took a tremendous amount of choreography to execute. All those things were about how do we honor what the cinema can do and make this feel as cinematic as possible.

Likewise with the score, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did a fantastic job. It’s a very unusual score. It’s organ music and electronic jungle music, and those two things combined with a suburban American context create a real dissonance that also adds attention to the filmmaking. So those things are really fun, but it all starts with having great material to adapt from. It was a real thrill for me to work on this.

Filmmaker: One of my favorite things about the movie is how it psychologically messes with you just through perspective. You can’t tell if you’re watching as a viewer or through Luce’s lens, especially by the end. How’d you go about deciding which scenes you wanted the interpretation of the viewer’s observation versus Luce’s?

Onah: There’s a really specific strategy I had. I would tell all my collaborators on the film that it is an objective subjectivity. So the movie is moving through the perspectives of all these characters. Sometimes you’re with Harriet, sometimes you’re with Amy, sometimes you’re with Luce, but the movie should always feel like you’re in Luce’s headspace. If you think of who this kid is, this very intellectual, cerebral, controlled individual, that’s the camera. The camera is always controlled. It’s fixed and when it moves, there has to be precision to every camera movement, every dolly movement, the soundscape as well. We removed all the laughter that might usually be in some of the background noises and all that other stuff. There’s no red in the film except for when that graffiti moment happens. That drains a certain amount of warmth from the story. You’re basically in Luce’s head and seeing the movie the way he feels psychologically, even when you’re with these other characters. That created a very natural tension. Something I haven’t mentioned to anybody else: another thing that we tried to do that I wanted to do to make it feel subjective is, every time Luce is at his locker or the locker closes, there’s an embedded gunshot. People would always ask, why didn’t we have a flashback to when he was a child soldier? I’m like, “Look, when you see somebody walking down the street, all you have are what you see and your own perceptions of who they are. So, if you saw Luce, you’d have to make a decision on the basis of that.” But, again, wanting to kind of create a sense of unconscious subjectivity to bring back his childhood, I embedded these gunshots that are throughout the entire film. So the whole time you’re watching the film, you don’t even know you’re being shot at.

Filmmaker: Your movie has been all around the festival circuit, since Sundance to Tribeca. Now it’s opening soon. How was it traveling thus far with this movie?

Onah: Truly, it’s exciting. It’s hard to do any movie, right? Even a movie that people deem as unsuccessful. It was hard to make it. I don’t think anybody sets out to make a bad movie. Every step of the way, you’re just like: “Well, if we can just get this script written. Oh man, if I could just get this actor to read it. Okay, if we could just close the money. All right, if we can just get through production. We gotta get through the edit. Well, will Sundance accept it?” So it’s such a privilege to even be sitting here with you and to talk about the movie, because most people don’t get to this moment. That’s something I’m constantly trying to remind myself. So, more so than anything, I’m so grateful.

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