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Julius Onah was born in Nigeria, but at 10 years old, he moved to Arlington. He lived there until he graduated from Washington-Lee High School (now Washington-Liberty) in 2000, then went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut before moving to New York City for graduate school. Onah’s been in the film industry for more than a decade—he directed a film called Don’t Look Back in 2008 and made his mainstream breakout as the director of The Cloverfield Paradox. His most recent film, Luce, is a psychological thriller set in Arlington that grapples with issues of race and humanity in America. Its title character, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is a star student and athlete who was adopted a decade ago from life as a child soldier in Eritrea by white parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), who, he notes, couldn’t pronounce his name and gave him a new one. When assigned to write a paper from the perspective of a historical figure, Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, a Pan-Africanist who wrote about violence as a tool to overcome oppression. This alarms his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). When Mrs. Wilson searches his locker, she finds something she thinks proves Luce is not what he seems. Eventually, the family is sucked into a confusing chaos. City Paper caught up with the director to chat about the film, its setting, and its themes.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WCP: About Washington-Liberty—as an alum, how did you feel when the school was renamed this year?Julius Onah: Thankful. As somebody who is of African descent—you’re not even aware of it on some levels, psychically, what it means, but the notion that you’re walking into a building every single day to receive an education, in which the actual name of the institution celebrates a figure whose sole intent was to make sure someone like you could not walk into that building—it’s a massive, massive cognitive dissonance. It’s utterly, completely insensitive, and also destructive and harmful in ways that we don’t truly think about. The fact that our places of learning would be celebrating that at a moment when we should only be working harder to invite people who historically have been disenfranchised into places of education is beyond problematic. It’s incredibly insensitive and short sighted.
WCP: Luce is adapted from a play by J.C. Lee. Was the play originally set in Arlington?JO: No, the play wasn’t set anywhere. It was set in a nondescript suburban America, like a lot of theater often is. And with something like this, I really wanted to personalize it and find avenues of entry into it so that I could understand it emotionally and psychologically and historically. It was important to give it a texture and a real grounding. And in many ways, Arlington felt particularly ripe for what the story was exploring.
WCP: What were you hoping to show viewers about the place where you grew up?JO: Arlington, being adjacent to D.C., is an incredibly cosmopolitan suburban enclave. I think both economically and also on the basis of ethnicity, when you look at North Arlington versus South Arlington, you see a real range of different experiences that I think is reflective of so much of what America looks like. The Washington-Lee I went to, we were kind of that perfect middle ground. There were so many kids who were coming from immigrant backgrounds from South America, yet there were also kids who are primarily white from more comfortable or wealthy families. You just had such a range of people and, as a result of that, a range of experiences that were conducive to what the play was doing and conducive to the kind of conversation with this story is having around identity on the basis of ethnicity, on the basis of class, on the basis of gender.
WCP: How has setting the story in Arlington added texture to Luce’s parents?JO: Well, Arlington, I think to its credit, is a community that is striving for progressive values and to live progressive values. Again, case in point, we just renamed the school. So I met many people who were versions of these parents when I was growing up in Arlington, who, in many ways, became surrogate parents for me because my parents were originally from Nigeria, and they didn’t have a real grasp of the college application process or what it meant to, like, go to prom. And I think a lot of those people were good, well-meaning people, but at the same time, there were certain interactions I would have where you see some people’s implicit biases that they’re not even aware of. I was really thankful to have a place like Arlington to call home, but also thankful to have it as a resource in the telling of the story.
WCP: Luce is obviously not supposed to be a character who’s easy to read, but how do you see him? JO: I’ll tell you how I described him to Kelvin Harrison Jr., the brilliant actor who played the role. He is somebody who’s so articulate, so intelligent, so complex, but he’s still a young man who’s trying to find himself. And in many ways, he moved from the literal warfare of a conflict zone as a young person to the psychological and emotional warfare of tackling identity and power and race and ethnicity in America. And as a result of that, he is trying to find himself within this environment where everybody around him is trying to define him on the basis of what they need him to be or what they would like him to represent.
WCP: How do the white adults in his life see him compared to how Mrs. Wilson sees him?JO: When you think about the moment that we’re in right now, we are having this incredible and necessary conversation that ultimately boils down to a simple question. And that is: Who gets to be human in America? Who gets access to the full spectrum of humanity? Historically, this country has been within the hands of one demographic, and I don’t say this to villainize white men, but it’s just the case. That is the reality of who all our institutions were built for: to support the existence and the power structures that put those people at the top of the totem pole. And when you have somebody like Luce, or call it Barack Obama, or call it Hillary Clinton, call it Pete Buttigieg, anybody who is going to be a transformative figure who rewrites the conventions of what it means to be an American—those people are immediately thrust with a great deal of expectation on them, and also a number of ideals that say, you’ve got to be this, this, and this, so you can prove to everybody that whatever group you’re coming from is worthy and viable and human. There’s something that’s incredibly insane when you think about it—that we even have to prove our humanity. We shouldn’t have to prove anything. Yet at the same time, because we live in a world that has not been built for the existence of people from historically marginalized backgrounds, you can’t avoid that question in that conversation.
They all see somebody like him who could be a transformative figure, as somebody who can prove a point, but he’s got to stay blemish-free, he’s got to be perfect. You’ve got these well-meaning, loving white parents who want to, on a representational level, do the right thing. And you’ve got somebody like Harriet, who understands the complexity of power, privilege, race, and identity in America and knows that as much as Luce might want to just say, ‘Hey, I’m a human being, you should see me as a human being,’ most of the world, or a lot of the world, is not ready to accept him as a human being. And for that reason, he may not have a choice but to be anything but perfect, because we’re not there yet.
WCP: Now that this film has been widely released, what do you want to highlight that hasn’t gotten a lot of play, and what impressions do you want to correct?JO: I kind of took pains to not read too much. But what I will say is this: One of the things that a lot of people seem to miss out on is this notion that storytelling does not have to be remedial, right? When you tell a complex story … boiling it down to an easy lesson that people are supposed to walk away from, or an easy moral that people are supposed to digest, is often disingenuous. And it absolves the audience of the responsibility that we all have as citizens in a national community to do a certain amount of work. We often want to turn to these symbolic gestures or these big easy ideas as the work that needs to be done. That’s not the way the world works. You don’t just have some massive symbolic or historic landmark and then the work is done. The work that needs to be done is a real self-interrogation and assessment. That doesn’t just come to a conclusion.
What’s important about telling the story the way we told the story is to give people the opportunity to take a step back and then think about ‘What do I believe? What do I think? How am I participating in the way that systems of privilege and power work?’ That’s where, for me, making a movie like this, where you don’t make a lot of money off of it and you pour years of your life into it—it’s small, a little labor of love—if it can contribute to that in a meaningful way, then it is more than worth it to me.