Critic's Notebook: What 'Luce' Gets Wrong About Interracial Adoption

Luce-Publicity Still 2-H 2019

Based on a play, the provocative new film starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer misses a major opportunity to go deep on a subject rarely explored on big or small screens.

Filmmakers and actors are allowed to take creative liberties when telling a fictional story. That is, after all, essentially the job. But some subject matter calls for a rigor and depth of thought that the work in question never musters.

While I welcome the premise and plotline of Luce, Julius Onah’s film about a white, upper-middle-class, suburban couple who’ve adopted a black boy from war-torn Eritrea, I struggled with the film’s shortcomings in laying bare the subtle intricacies of interracial adoptions. Specifically, the movie fumbles what it feels like to be the black child of white adoptive parents; it too often feels exploitative rather than imaginative. 

There are so few interracial adoption stories in film and television — NBC’s This Is Us comes to mind — that the ones that get made, even if they get it wrong, end up claiming the experience for everyone. And that can be endlessly frustrating for those of us who live the experience.

This is not to say that Luce gets it wrong entirely. The film, based on a play of the same name by J.C. Lee, a self-described queer playwright of color, is austere and poignant, dialogue-centric without being overly theatrical. It fearlessly dives into some of the most prickly and uncomfortable aspects of race and systemic racism. Kelvin Harrison Jr., in the titular role — the beloved adopted black son who suddenly comes under suspicion after he writes a provocative history paper and explosives are found in his school locker — gives an intense performance, oscillating back and forth like a manic-depressive between even-keeled saint and off-the-rails overachiever. And Octavia Spencer, as Harriet Wilson, Luce’s stern and discerning high-school teacher, who has a lot riding on the success of Luce as her Manchild in the Promiseland, is at the top of her game.

But the turns from Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, as Luce’s parents Amy and Peter, feel forced — as if the actors, both usually so cogent, are in over their head. In part, I suspect, it’s because neither is American, and interracial adoption in America is, for lack of a better word, so American. It’s an institution addled with misconceptions and deceit; above all, it’s been wildly ineffective at preparing white parents to raise children of another race or ethnicity — especially black children. 

While the characters of Amy and Peter in many ways embody that ignorance, they themselves would never lay claim to it. On the contrary, they are borderline smug about having nailed the job of raising a black son. The film and its source material have every right to portray them as such; it’s a narrative choice. But Luce never draws out the flaws in Amy and Peter’s parenting, or how those flaws have shaped the DuBois-ian double consciousness Luce feels about being a young black man in America. It feels like a missed opportunity to explore the still current and dangerous phenomenon of white parents being woefully ill-equipped to raise black children. 

Neither actor convinces. Roth huffs his way through scene after scene; Edgar, who can’t decide whether to be a chum or a dad to Luce, seems startlingly put out by the necessary damage control abruptly foisted upon his family because of his son’s problems at school. And Watts’ Amy is more coquettish than parental as she sits demurely on the side of Luce’s bed, encouraging him to make his next school speech about himself. “You have a story to tell,” she says, as if it’s a story she doesn’t herself know.  

In the speech, Luce crisply articulates how thankful he is to his teachers, his peers, but especially to his parents for preparing him for “the battles ahead” and helping him become who he’s “meant to be.” It’s been 10 years since his parents adopted him from Eritrea, where he’d been a child soldier amid brutal military violence. Luce has been through therapy for PTSD (an expense and time suck, Luce’s father is quick to remind us), and is a star athlete and straight-A student. The scene jots off trope boxes like a bingo card of interracial adoption buzz themes. Doesn’t sound like a black kid from the hood? Check. Delivered to a life of opportunity by white saviors? Check. Grateful for being given an existence that is so much better than the one he came from? Check. 

All of these things can be true while also being examined, pushed and deconstructed to further enhance both the art and the conversation around its subject. But Onah and his team, in opening up the play for the screen, never satisfyingly do that. For example, the fact that Luce was adopted at seven years old is completely glossed over. All adoptees feel a sense of primal severance no matter what age they’re adopted; it’s nearly impossible, no matter how thorough the therapy, that Luce wouldn’t continue to feel this on a constant, limbic level just a decade after being adopted at age seven. He had a birth family for nearly as long as he has had an adopted one; only a lobotomy could erase that memory. And yet the film offers nary a flashback. That he was virtually airlifted from a war zone in Africa makes it even more unrealistic that Luce would evolve so quickly and ostensibly unscathed. (“He’s a very resilient kid,” Amy tells Ms. Wilson, unpersuasively.)

When Luce writes a paper on the black West Indian revolutionary Frantz Fanon — best known for his theories about the effect of colonialism on racial consciousness — and then is found to be storing firecrackers in his locker, Ms. Wilson, and soon after, his parents, are suspicious. The latter fact raises the question of whether Luce’s parents have helped him become who he was meant to be, or simply who he has to be in order for them to see him as their son. When he is excelling, he is their race-less, all-star child; when he is in trouble, he becomes the black boy they tried and failed to save.

The tensions between white parents and their adoptive black children are generally less obvious than sitting in awkward silence at the dinner table. More often, those tensions exist as a quiet anvil of grief that lifts and lowers the weight on alternating shoulders. In one heated scene between Luce and Amy, Luce attempts to explain to his mother how difficult it is to try to be what everybody wants him to be. Amy tells him she’s there to protect him, and Luce responds, “What if you’re what I need protecting from?” She never answers. It’s a kick-in-the-gut question to which every black adoptee I know — myself included — would love to have heard the answer. But again, Luce doesn’t go there. 

When the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April (after premiering a few months earlier at Sundance), the producers reached out to me about moderating a Q&A with the filmmaker and actors. I was happy to participate, as the subject is squarely in my wheelhouse: I am myself a black adoptee adopted by white parents, have written and spoken extensively on the subject, and currently am at work on my memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, due out from Simon & Schuster in early 2021. Per the request of producers and the publicity team for the film, I submitted questions to share with castmembers prior to the event. On stage with me were actors Harrison Jr., Watts, Roth, Marsha Stephanie Blake (who gives an explosive, gutting performance as Harriet’s mentally ill sister) and Andrea Bang, who plays Luce’s girlfriend.

Roth seemed particularly taken aback by a question that referenced something his character says in the film, which to my mind sums up the family’s entire dynamic: “I wanted a normal family. I didn’t want to be a fucking political statement.” What is a “normal” family? And how can this white father truly, unconditionally love his black child if even a small part of him sees Luce as a “political statement”? Roth would only say that he connected to the material as a father, and that he didn’t think about whether or not his character could suitably raise a black child. His response confirmed the feeling I had, while watching the film, that Roth and Watts had interpreted the roles to their comfort level without thinking critically about their characters or the film’s implications or repercussions. 

The film ends as it opens, with Luce giving a speech, this time more personal, as his mother had encouraged. In it, he praises his parents for their brave response when they saw a picture of him at seven years old, and “weren’t scared.” He goes on to tell the anecdote of how he came to be named Luce — Amy couldn’t pronounce his Eritrean name, and Peter suggested they rename him. They chose Luce, which means light; Amy said it was because of the light that shone inside him, “if only they could sweep the darkness of those first seven years away.” In America, Luce continues, you get to tell your own story. “Here’s mine,” he says, before being drowned out by the film’s score. We never get to hear that story. In the last scene, we see a close-up of Luce running toward the camera — away from what we don’t know. 

We are living in a time when the film industry has (rightly) come under attack over proper representation of people from marginalized communities — cisgender people playing gay and trans characters, white actors playing characters of color, abled bodies performing the disabled. Although Onah told me he had talked extensively with his agent and costume designer, both Korean adoptees, white production members who have adopted and others with experience in interracial adoption, I nevertheless came away with the sense that more input from adult black adoptees would have been useful. 

That doesn’t take away from Luce’s value, its ability to stir conversation. But the movie never quite delivers on what it could have been — a bold, much-needed primer with the potential to examine rarely seen lives and change the way we think and talk about interracial adoption.

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic and multimedia content producer. Her writing has appeared in The GuardianThe New York TimesEsquireNew York magazine and The Los Angeles Times, where she is a critic-at-large.