Film Director Julius Onah Probes Evocative Issues in Luce

[Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison-Jr, and Naomi Watts in the movie Luce. Photo by Jon Pack/Neon Studios]

From the moment that film director Julius Onah read J.C. Lee’s play, he wanted to take this complex story about the assumptions we make about people and turn it into a movie.

The result: a fascinating indie film starring Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer, that has viewers thinking and discussing difficult topics.

Onah, a Nigerian-American filmmaker with a great passion for his art, is best known for The Girls in Trouble and The Cloverfield Paradox.

He said the project started with the writing and the idea for the characters and how it could be translated from the stage to the screen. Onah and Lee adapted the play into a screenplay.

Having as his two leading ladies, Naomi Watts, whose work he has loved since Mulholland Drive, and Octavia Spencer on-board legitimized the project, and he is thankful to have had such “an incredible” cast of actors.

The movie from Neon Studios was released in early August.

Luce is the story of an all-star high school athlete and accomplished debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is a poster boy for the new American Dream. His liberal-minded parents Amy and Peter Edgar, (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from war-torn Eritrea a decade earlier, couldn’t be more proud of their son. They also thought that the worse was behind them.

Luce has become an all-star student beloved by his community in Arlington, Virginia. His African American teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), believes he is a symbol of black excellence that sets a positive example for his peers.

But when he is assigned to write an essay in the voice of a historical 20th-century figure, Luce turns in a paper that makes an alarming statement about political violence. Worried about how this assignment reflects upon her star pupil, Harriet searches his locker and finds something that confirms her worst fears.

However, things may not be as they seem…

[Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr and Naomi Watts in Luce. Photo by Larkin Seiple/Neon Studios.]

What is the message or take-a-way from Luce?

What is central to this movie is to ask people to stand outside their presumptions and to see how we are all complicit in these systems. The question of how we participate is a critical one, especially when we are asked to stand outside what we think that we know.

This was a quick film shoot.

Yes, it took 25 days for this small little indie movie and a week of rehearsal days. We talked about the scenes and tried to prepare as much as possible

You have two leading actresses who are so accomplished and yet so different in their styles. Can you talk about working with Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer in this film?

What they were able to accomplish speaks volumes for both of them. I was just amazed by how grounded and gracious they were. They were open to my process and likewise, they each parented Kelvin, who goes toe-to-toe with each of them. They were such incredible mentors and partners to him and to me as well. I cannot thank them enough.

Having been a play, this movie is very theatrical. How does this fit with your background?

I studied theater in college and did a number of shows that explored the ideas around identity and class and race. You wish and hope you can find something like this to do. So it was a huge privilege and an opportunity to tell this story and hope that it will resonate with people.

[Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars in the indie movie Luce. Photo Neon Studios]

Who do you credit for your confidence and life lessons that helped guide you during difficult times in this tough business?

Well, as you know it takes a village to raise a child. I know that I received my work ethic from my parents. In my career, I still remember my 7th-grade history teacher Jeff Fishbein who told me I could do anything that I put my mind too. Then as a 19-year-old college intern, I worked with Spike Lee, and that was such a big part of my training and process.

What were you doing for Spike Lee, who is such a great director?

I was an intern bringing coffee and newspapers in the story development department. Then at the age of 26, I let him know that I wrote my first screenplay, which became my first feature film.

What is the one thing you learned from him?

I came to realize is that he and his colleagues worked their butts off to get there and that they are human beings past the public persona. I was able to get to appreciate them and relate to them as a human being.

If I gave you some time to chill out how would you spend it?

Traveling. I would hop on a plane and fly somewhere new. My parents were diplomats and so growing up I flew around the world. I hope to get Thailand – for the texture, smell, and taste. All of this opens me up. That’s what I would do if I had the spare time.

What has been the reaction to Luce?

I am so appreciative of how many people are willing to step outside of their perspective. The way you view the world is really the answer here.

Why do you encourage my readers to see this movie?

I think it’s a real opportunity to engage with these issues in a way that isn’t trying to tell you what to think. It’s a ride, a journey with a set of characters. A real surprise, with history and intrigue. It still leaves you with enough questions. I think there is nothing more thrilling than to share this with friends and have dialogue afterward because it creates a real complete experience and it makes it very exciting for your readers to watch.

Luce is currently playing in theaters nationwide.




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