Naomi Watts, 'Luce' Director on How the Film Explores Issues of Race, Identity for Kids

Julius Onah talks about his the relationship between his film's two white parents and their adopted black son, and what it's like releasing such a movie amid current racial tensions.

Julius Onah’s thought-provoking thriller Luce stars Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth and follows the story of a talented student athlete with a difficult past, as well as the white parents who adopted him from his war-torn native country. Questions about race, privilege and identity are raised as the film details the struggles the couple faces in parenting a former boy soldier and the high standards Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) must live up to as his high school’s poster child for black excellence.

Onah told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of a red-carpet screening of Luce's in New York on Wednesday that his film aims to explore how many different components — race, class, gender and sexuality — can be both impactful and limiting in forming an identity, especially to a young person.

“Some people have more access and can find themselves on their own terms, while other people are put into these boxes and told, 'This is who you are, and that’s it.' I think for any young person who is trying to figure out who they are, this is a really universal story,” Onah said.

The film was adapted from the play by J.C. Lee, who worked with Onah to help his story transition to the big screen, a story Lee says was inspired by his own multiracial background and the labeling he has personally experienced.

“It’s a natural human impulse to label, because we want to simplify," Lee told THR. "I think what we have to understand and what this film is trying to explore is that that human impulse can also be destructive and limiting. It can limit communities and individuals. I hope this examination helps to start conversations about that.”

While Lee wrote the play during Obama’s presidency, he recognizes the relevance it has now, considering the issues of racism that have come up during Trump’s presidency and his 2020 campaign.

“To me it says the story of America is long and complicated, and that the America we thought we were living in under President Obama was maybe not the one that was real,” Lee said. “I think what the 2016 election unearthed was that there were a lot of people with a lot of feelings, and if they had their way and could say whatever they wanted, we would see just how much progress we still had to make.”

The film touches on tokenism as well, with Onah explaining that to his community, Luce represents a flawed perception of progress.

“You can’t have people live their lives on a symbolic level and say, ‘Well you are the example of us making progress.’ A much bigger conversation is required to create true equality in our culture on all these issues, whether it’s race, gender or sexuality,” Onah said.

Watts, who plays Luce’s adoptive mother, Amy, spoke to THR about her goal of accurately portraying the difficulties white parents face in raising a black child.

“It’s complicated stuff. Parents don’t want to push too much on certain questions, and they have to be sensitive all the way around,” Watts said. “But I’m so glad that this movie taps into that world, and hopefully it’ll make it less uncomfortable to talk about.”

Amy experiences even more parenting hardships as Luce’s teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer), who sets higher expectations for students of color, discovers something troubling in his locker — casting doubt on who Amy thought her son was and who she raised him to be.

“She just wants to have her son succeed and reflect parts of herself and all of her hard work, but it’s clear that she hasn’t got everything as squared away as she thought she did," Watts said. "She is forced into a situation now where she has to ask herself a lot of questions and address her blind spots."

Lee and Onah both say the film does not offer answers but is intended to spark conversations about whether these high expectations for Luce exist because he is black.

“We were very interested in trying to grapple with the now of what does it mean to be a person of color in today’s America and how complicated is that, and what are the nuanced ways that we deal with our power, privilege and identities?” Lee said.

Neon is set to release Luce, which had its world premiere at Sundance, on Aug. 2.