An expository essay sits at the core of Julius Onah and JC Lee’s drama Luce. The title character Luce, a high school senior, lauded as a scholar, athlete, and debator, tackles a new path when he writes a paper in the voice of black revolutionary Frantz Fanon. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon asserts that decolonization is an inevitably violent event. Though Luce argues that his expository paper reflected the assignment parameters, he pursues a Fanon-like attempt to decolonize, an attempt distorted by assimilatory expectations set for him—expectations he gives into. Luce enacts a form of violence that proves counterproductive to his blackness, but necessary to consummate his status as American. Luce illustrates that to Americanize an African, is to niggerize a human. Thus, though pegged as a psychological drama, Luce illustrates niggerization as a psychosis that results from assimilating an African into America.
The film succeeds in featuring a discourse where Fanon holds hands with Ralph Ellison and black male protagonist Luce. Luce pays the price of assimilation in a disappearing act that manifests in the patriotic speech that ends the film. The speech, delivered to an audience basking in his assimilatory performance, delineates his transition from patriot to person. I contend that the black man turned patriot, or American, inevitably becomes an invisible man.
This assimilatory tale, though somewhat nuanced in this film, is not a new narrative. Ralph Ellison delineates a similar battle in “The Battle Royal” or what would become the first chapter of his masterpiece Invisible Man. In his canonical piece, Ellison introduces readers to a nameless protagonist who, in almost all regards, proves a lot like Luce. The film evokes “The Battle Royal” in the tension Luce has with other black people seeking to make something of themselves, despite lacking Luce’s crossover appeal. This is perhaps most evidenced in a scene Luce has with a white teammate who distinguishes between Luce and his friend DeSean, where Luce’s teammate references DeSean, the caricatured inner-city youth, as “black black.” This distinction indicates that Luce’s blackness is physical, whereas DeSean’s blackness encompasses his essence. This distinction delineates that black male invisibility is pseudo visibility. The most visible black men, those lauded and celebrated for epitomizing American values, epitomizes the essence of invisibility.
To consummate his invisibility, the black male protagonist eliminates his resources. His overachiever status alienates him from his classmates who realize that they must fall so Luce can stand. Specifically, though all the members on Luce’s track team smoke marijuana, it is DeSean, a black man not coveted by white vestment, that loses funding for a collective recreational habit. DeSean comes to encompass a stereotype because the stereotype must exist for there to be a black token. The Stereotype and the token are two sides of the same coin, as both the stereotype and the token veil black identity behind a caricature. Nevertheless, while Luce and DeSean’s detachment composes a core component to his assimilatory narrative, it is Luce’s detachment from the black woman that consummates his road to invisibility.
Harriet Wilson, who shares a name with the first black person to write a novel, occupies a similar space to her foremother in the Virginia high school where she works. Particularly, Wilson is one of few black teachers at the school, a dearth that fosters a maternal attachment to Luce. This attachment manifests in the high standards she holds him too. Wilson’s expectations for Luce are not unlike the expectations his white parents, and white teachers have for him, yet Luce’s rage, despite uttering a few harsh words to his white mother, remain anchored in Wilson.
After learning that Ms. Wilson has informed his parents of his essay, Luce begins a series of carefully executed incidents that result in Wilson’s dismissal and Luce’s eventual rise to the top of an assimilatory mountain. Luce’s “rise” and Wilson’s fall are both rooted in their reliance on the white woman. Wilson initially reached out to Luce’s mother to report Luce’s essay and even hands her the explosives found in his locker. Her actions, while stern, reflect care, as Wilson could have easily reported Luce to the principal, as she did to his friend DeSean. Luce, however, cannot understand Wilson’s actions due the psychosis that results from being adopted by a white family and infiltrated into a white country.
Ms. Wilson treats Luce with same regard to which white men or white boys encounter globally, when they exude similar behavior before fatal acts. This treatment enables Wilson to act as a white woman who though seemingly protecting the youth, protects her matriarchy. Through this dynamic, the film explores institutionalization as duplicitous. Specifically, Luce’s adoption into a white family and a white nation both remain contingent on an assimilation to which everyone in his life, his parents, teachers, and even his girlfriend, contribute. Harriet Wilson battles her duplicity through what the contemporary world calls intersectionality. Wilson battles her femininity and race in the interactions with her students and their parents. This intersectionality proves a farce as Wilson eventually encounters an invisibility that causes her to disappear from the institution to which she devoted her life.This invisibility, though fomented by Luce, comes full circle because of the white woman.
The white woman occupies a similar space and place in Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal.” In the short story turned introductory chapter, white female victimhood chronologically precedes the narrator’s fate, but though both occupy the same stage, the two do not hold hands. What I mean here, is that in both Ellison’s novel and the film, the white woman is an omen for what becomes of the black protagonist.
Given that Luce the character and film derive from JC Lee, a white man, Amy Edgar, Luce’s adoptive mother, most likely exists to consummate the white savior role. Whether the result of a black director and screenwriter Julius Onah, or just how the characters manifested in relation to one another, Luce’s adoptive parents delineate white narcissism. When Luce began to fade from perfection, Mr. Edgar clearly becomes uncomfortable with his proximity to Luce’s flaws; Mrs. Edgar, however, appears unrelentlessly espoused to her maternal role. Her seemingly unwavering love for Luce, though, reflects her devotion to her investment. Amy Edgar, therefore, does not love Luce; she loves the parts of herself she has poured into him. Similarly, there is a a moment in the film where Mr. Edgar appears to choose his family, whereas he too chooses his white male vestment in his white wife and adopted son. This narcissism is most evident in the moments where Luce practices his final speech, where he laments on his parents changing his name because they “could not pronounce it.” To the casual listener, this proclamation appears innocuous, if not funny. To those who last name marks an oppressive familial link, this information illustrates the rudimentary steps in Luce’s institutionalization process. The name change, like acquiring a new language, seemingly marks Luce as a family member and an America; whereas, this process actualizes his status as captive. Thus, this “familial” dynamic reveals white narcissism as often misconstrued as white affection.
Narcissism, projected as affection from the African-adjacent woman occurs countless times throughout the film. However, the only true affection Luce does experience is from Harriet Wilson. This affection is distorted and doused in white ideals, but it is as pure as any institutionalized sentiment can be. Luce welcomes and manipulates the narcissistic affections of his African-adjacent admirers because doing so affords him a pseudo power that will not question or cure his trauma. Luce’s engagement with the African adjacent superficially fills a void resulting from his absent maternal and continental mother.
Luce’s detachment from the black woman is perhaps most pronounced in a scene where Ms. Wilson’s younger sister has a public episode. During this episode, Ms. Wilson’s sister Rosemary strips off all her clothes in hopes to make her sister feel the shame she felt when Wilson put her out. Luce uses the footage of Rosemary’s nude body tased by police in front of numerous white students and staff to substantiate why Ms. Wilson is not to be trusted. A young black woman publicly humiliated and harmed, does nothing to Luce, a young man taken from Eritrea where he likely witnessed similar trauma firsthand. This marks Luce as mirroring a captive’s disposition toward the captured—that institutionalization is a necessary means to tame the uncivilized beast, or as he spray0painted in Ms. Wilson’s house, the “n*ggerb*tch.”.
This detachment from the physical and continental mother maintains an integral role in Luce’s assimilation. It is only a motherless child that becomes what Richard Wright called a Native Son and what Ellison called an Invisible Man. Bigger Thomas, separated from his family and displaced into the Dalton home, becomes what the white world always destined him to be. The invisible man marks this detachment in his nameless state. His unnamed state mirrors the African abductee, stripped from his name, and ripped from his physical and continental mother, becomes subjected to his colonizer’s plans. Though perfected in literature, his story delineates this narrative with the George Stinney’s and the Emmett Till’s, the native sons turned invisible men by a white supremacist wrath.
Luce encompasses a different form of invisibility, not consummated in a jail cell, in a wooden box, or in an electric chair. Rather, Luce consummates his invisibility at a podium delivering his highly anticipated final speech. It is not, however, Luce that delivers this speech; rather, it is an invisible man who delivers this speech.
As an invisible man, Luce’s abduction is an adoption, Mrs. Edgar is “Mom” and not “Amy,” and his “favor,” speech, and ways mark assimilation, not the assassination of a culture.
To place Luce in conversation with the pivotal novels that archive a similar experience, the following phrase comes to mind: “He who has never been born can never die, and he who was never born, does not truly exist.” Detached from the black mother and mother continent, Luce is a native son to white narcissism, or an invisible man.
To embrace the black woman, or Ms. Wilson, as a maternal figure and not a “n*gger- bitch,” is to acknowledge the psychosis that results from a child ripped from both his mother and nation. To put it bluntly, this psychosis imbues an invisibility that makes Luce a canvass for white ideals. A canvass for white ideals, Luce personifies what the Invisible Man’s grandfather says to him in a dream: “Keep that n*gger boy running.” The final moments of the film capture Luce doing just that, except he is not guided or haunted by a forefather. Thus, Luce’s final act symbolizes him running away from blackness, towards whiteness, and into a bottomless invisibility veiled by the applause and accolades that accompany assimilation.
It may be too easy to deem the moral of the film as follows: white parents should not adopt black children. Rather, the film provides cause to question the ways in which all black people have been viciously adopted into a white culture, and made into Luce-like beings. The film provides cause to question the ways in which all black people are forced to forget their mothers and embrace an invisibility hidden behind the word “American.”