Julius Onah on His New Film, Luce

Julius Onah explores racial privilege and prejudice in his new film, Luce. Read our conversation and learn about the film’s autobiographical elements — and our shared Arlington, VA roots!

This is so exciting. In a nutshell, what is this film about?
It’s about a couple played by Naomi Watson, Kim Ross, and a number of classified couple in Arlington, Virginia who adopt a young man from Eritrea who’s a former child soldier and played by Calvin Harrison Jr. And this kid moves to America and becomes this incredible rock star of a student athlete. He’s the captain of the debate team. He’s the captain of the track team, and he becomes your dream all American young man. And he’s a real symbol of his community. And this teacher — played by Octavia Spencer — thinks this is a very important symbol to preserve. And after she assigns a paper to be written on any figure from 20th century history, he chooses to write his paper from the point of view post-colonial Revolutionary thinker named France Fernand. Essentially, it’s a paper that advocates political violence and that it’s okay to shoot somebody if they disagree with you politically. This raises a red flag for Octavia Spencer’s character. She brings it to his parents. And all of them knowing how important it is to preserve a Luce’s reputation, decide to try and deal with it quietly. And from there it starts a chain reaction of events that gets out of control and changes all their lives.

It’s based on a play by Jaycee Lee. But the story clearly resonated with you. Can you tell us about the autobiographical elements of it?
The play kind of operated in a slightly more mythical every town America and it wasn’t specific where it was placed. But, when I read it, I saw so many parallels with my personal experience growing up. I was born in Nigeria, I moved to Arlington, Virginia when I was 10 and grappled with some of the issues and questions around identity that Luce deals with — both in terms of how one defines your blackness. Also the idea of being a model minority, the idea of being asked to live your life on a symbolic level and what that means represents for everybody around you. And I really wanted to personalize it. So, growing up in Arlington and feeling like there were elements of that community that worked very well for the story in terms of the mixing pot of class, race, and ethnicity. I gave elements of myself to it. I said it more or less than the high school. I was on debate team in high school. I was on the track team in high school. So I gave all those elements to the character, including specific things that had happened to me while at school to the characters as well, just to really personalize it as much as possible. But at the same time in co-writing with JC, we were able to honor the integrity of what the play was doing and the questions and was asking.

Why do you think the story is particularly relevant today?
I think it’s incredibly relevant today because we’re in a moment in this country in which all what has to do is look at the headlines every day where there’s real questions being asked about who gets to be an American. There’s real questions about being asked about who gets access to the full spectrum of humanity. Identity is at the forefront of the conversation in this country when it comes to gender and class and race. think it’s a conversation that we haven’t been having and it’s a conversation we don’t know how to have.  And there’s a shift happening in this country right now from one generation to another when it comes to the mindset of how to define identity and how to define a lot of global conversations in this country. And you see that in the debates in the south between Calvin Harris Jr’s character in Luce and Octavia Spencer’s character Harriet Wilson. You also see it in just a whole generation gap between the younger characters, the older characters. And you’re seeing it in the national conversation in this country, whether it’s stuff that’s brought up around Nancy Pelosi and the Squad or  in these debates between some of the older candidates and the younger candidates. This idea of what it means to be an American and how we define that and how we equally distribute power and privilege is such an important conversation to be having if this country is going to live up to the ideals.

What was it like working with such A list actors — Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer? Not too shabby!!
Not too shabby! But also nerve wracking. The script was written with Naomi in mind and Octavia in mind as well. I’ve been a massive fan of Naomi’s since I first got to see her in and I just said, wow, I need to work with this woman. And likewise with Octavis, who has given us so many incredible performances. I thought, if they were willing to do this, not only would it bring the truthful mission story, but it would also be an opportunity to perhaps see them in something a little bit different than we might’ve seen them before in. But, they were all just so, so incredible to work with and such professionals and so inspiring too. So it was a real dream come true.

You grew up in Arlington, Virginia (my hometown!!) and that’s where the film takes place. Why was Arlington such a fitting setting for the film?
Because Arlington is a community that has drawn so many different types of people. There’s those who are from a more upper middle class background. There’s a big immigrant population from Honduras and El Salvador. I was part of that immigrant population that lived in South Arlington for one part of my life, but then I was also an Ambassador’s son for another part of my life when I lived in North Arlington. So I got to see the ways in which identity played out in this cosmopolitan environment. And a lot of the questions about values and ideal and the discrepancy between those things. I think a lot of things were taking place in Arlington. I mean, case and point — I went to a school called Washington High School. I mean right there, that name of that school, you’re seeing the back and forth and the real extensional dilemma of what America wants to represent. In the name of that high school — on one hand, it was about the foundation of the country. On the other hand, it was celebrating the name of somebody who fought for slavery and that was a building I walked into school every day. We recently renamed it Washington Liberty High School. So, I couldn’t think of any better place to check the story. But there’s also a certain element of hometown pride in there as well. Because, you know, my family’s still there and so when I come home for Thanksgiving, your college.

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