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‘Luce’ Takes on the White Savior Stereotype and the Underbelly of the American Dream

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Sundance Institute

Luce

By Eric Hynes

In Luce, the debut film by Julius Onah, the conflicts of a suburban American high school come to represent the fractures within the whole country, and complex ethical and moral issues are navigated with the stakes of a thriller. Based on a play by J.C. Lee, it stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Luce Edgar, the adopted son of Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Ten years after emigrating as a child from Eritrea, Luce is a model student athlete, exalted and subtly pressured by the likes of his African American teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer). But when Harriet receives a term paper from Luce that she finds out of character, intimating a potential for violence, she reaches out to Amy and Peter, setting into motion a machine of doubt, suspicion, and resentment, exposing what’s been beneath the surface for characters that have been working hard at playing roles that have been ascribed to them.

In an extensive and uncommonly thorough post-screening Q&A, Onah was joined by all four lead actors for a discussion about the origins, intentions, and processes behind the film. One of the first questioners noted that the film critiques two long-standing stereotypes: the white savior and the exceptional Negro.

“This is partially a story about being forced to live your life on a symbolic level. It’s a story about power and privilege and who determines who has to live on a symbolic level to be accepted,” Onah said. “Those stereotypes are ones that we’re talking about a lot now as we speak about identity in our country and the ways that people can be put in boxes, and the ways we all contribute to that unconsciously without being aware. There are some people in the country who have the full spectrum of humanity available to them. And there are some who don’t. This is a story about questioning how our blind spots and perceptions contribute towards suffocating, dominating, or hurting other people.”

The actors talked about how they accessed their characters, starting with Watts, whose dedication to her son takes her into some uncharted waters, ethically and emotionally. “There’s a line in the film, ‘I don’t want to be just a saint or a monster,’ and I think we all probably feel like that at times,” she said. “In this movie she will go to great lengths to protect her son, and even tell a lie. But she’s also incredibly vulnerable and suspicious herself. She wants to investigate and also to keep the truth at bay. She’s by no means a perfect person. It was great to take a role that was complex. She’s all things.”

“One of the first things I do when I’m preparing for a role is to eliminate the things that I’m not supposed to know as a character,” Spencer said. “When you read the script you know what everyone else is doing, but in life it doesn’t work out that way. You just don’t know what other people are thinking. Just working on that level of identifying with the fact that [Harriet] demanded excellence, and not really understanding why [Luce] didn’t understand the gift that she was giving him—for me it was just existing in that space [and] allowing myself to go, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ You can’t really effectively play a character that you judge. So I had to be very clear about why Harriet does what she does. And I had to be okay with why Harriet does what she does. And I had to be okay with the result of what happens to Harriet for taking a stand.”

Onah talked about the unique investments that Harrison made to get into character, including reading books by Frantz Fanon and actually writing the term paper that would incite the actions of the film—a paper that Spencer then actually graded. Harrison described a process that involved “basically stripping everything that was mine, that was Kelvin, away. One of the first calls Julius made to me, he was like, “Alright, you’re going to get a dialect coach”—and this is not offensive to me, I understand. But he said, ‘Basically, we’re going to get all the black out of you.’ And I was like, alright, that’s different,” he said, eliciting laughter. “And that was the hardest part—the mask. And I read the book by Frantz Fanon called Black Skin, White Masks, and I basically had to put on my version of that white mask to fit in this family. And it was such a challenge, but that was my in, in a real way. To really understand what it was like to leave your home, and walk into this place that’s so not yours.”

“It’s a story about the ways we look at each other, about privilege and power and the ways we all contribute to creating the culture and society we live in, and taking a moment to think about each one of our blind spots,” Onah said. “There are uncomfortable things that happen in this movie, there are things that are scary. But I think in pushing through the things that make us uncomfortable and scared, perhaps we start to find something that resembles a truth. And if we can do that, maybe there’s a path forward.”

Them That Follow

by Jeremy Kinser

Them That Follow takes viewers to a world few have seen before. The debut feature from directorial team Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage chronicles a love triangle set deep in the Appalachian woods among a group of devout Pentecostal snake handlers with what feels like deep authenticity.

The story chronicles Mara (Alice Englert), who is marrying Garrett (Lewis Pullman) to please her overzealous pastor father (Walton Goggins). Unbeknownst to both men is that Mara is secretly pregnant by her childhood sweetheart Augie (Thomas Mann). Mara’s secret is discovered by Augie’s mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), who sets into motion a series of disturbing events that will force Mara to test her faith.

The directors co-wrote the script, which is empathetic of this little-understood subculture, but their tale grows darker by the scene, culminating with a gruesome moment that caused many audience members to gasp while squirming in their seats. The pair have elicited strong performances from the cast—Colman, sporting a faultless regional accent, is a ferocious standout as a woman who must question her devotion when an unimaginable fate befalls her only son.

Madison Savage said he’s had a lifelong fascination with Pentecostal snake handlers. “I saw this film as an opportunity to learn about people who are very different from myself and to hopefully take audiences on the same journey I was on,” he said during the Q&A that followed the premiere. “It’s about understanding people whose choices you might not agree with, but I hope by the film’s end you come to understand them a bit better.”

Directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage introduce “Them That Follow.” © 2019 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons

Walton, who was raised in Georgia, agreed and added that his curiosity about the people depicted in the script was his impetus for signing on. “My litmus test for getting involved in a project like this is to foster a deeper understanding of a community of people who are deeply misunderstood,” said the actor, who adds yet another eccentric character to his résumé. “If you don’t agree with them, at least you can criticize them from a place of empathy.”

Poulton stressed that the film is not a docu-drama. “We explore it and fill in the edges of things we didn’t know,” she said. “These communities have been mocked and maligned and are very reclusive as a result. We don’t even know how many actually exist.”

Velvet Buzzsaw

By Jeremy Kinser

Velvet Buzzsaw, Tony Gilroy’s bonkers new movie, reunites his Nightcrawler cast members Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in a satiric thriller that takes place in Los Angeles’ contemporary art world scene. It’s where financially important artists and mega-collectors find they will pay a higher price than expected when art collides with commerce.

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal attend the “Velvet Buzzsaw” premiere. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Russo plays Rhodora Haze, a cut-throat gallery owner in L.A. who’s frustrated with her protégé Josephina (Zawe Ashton) until she discovers a cache of disturbing, yet potentially extremely lucrative paintings left behind by her late, enigmatic neighbor. Gyllenhaal offers a delightfully campy performance as Morf Vandewalt, an effete art critic who verifies the importance of the mysterious art and then begins to realize that the paintings are haunting in ways no one could suspect.

Gilroy noted that Sundance is the perfect place to premiere the film, which will begin streaming on Netflix in February, because it’s a place that fosters creativity among artists and an environment to thrive.

He began to work on the script, filled with quotable dialogue, after visiting a museum filled with very disturbing contemporary art in Los Angeles toward closing time. “I thought it would be a really interesting place to set a horror film,” he shared. “It became a vehicle for the idea that art is more than a commodity and the idea that artists invest their spirit and soul into their work. That’s getting lost a bit these days.”

The director-screenwriter said he was especially interested in using the film to explore the rocky relationship between commerce and art in today’s world. “You can judge the value of art by the number of views or the amount paid,” he informed. “Success doesn’t diminish the value of art, but it doesn’t define it either.”

At one point in the film Gilroy has Josephina tell an idealistic young artist that there’s no relevance in his work if no one sees it. The director himself insisted that a piece of art has relevance if it affects even one person. “To me it’s not the number of people that see it or the amount of money that’s paid for it,” Gilroy said. “It’s a very personal experience between the artist and the person who’s listening or viewing or experiencing it. That to me is the most crucial part of the entire process.”

Pahokee

By Dana Kendall

In the small rural Florida town of Pahokee, directing team and spouses Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan follow four teenagers during their senior year of high school, capturing the everyday moments and community traditions that make their town unique. As we watch glimpses of football games, class elections, and time in the community and at home, we get a slice-of-life peek into what it’s really like to be a Pahokeean.

© 2019 Sundance Institute | Jovelle Tamayo

Bresnan, who has worked in rural communities throughout his life, said that “Palm Beach County was really close to my heart, and it’s a place that’s very segregated. Having worked in rural communities, I knew these stories needed to be told.”

At the premiere screening, one of the students, BJ, expressed his appreciation for the chance to share his point of view: “Being able to show the world Pahokee and what it means to us from our perspective—it means a lot to my community and to my classmates and to my family and friends.”

Na’Kerria, another high schooler who features largely in the film’s journey, shared similar sentiments: “It’s great for us to be able to showcase what we come from and for people to see it how we see it instead of how [other] people try to make it seem. It was just great to be able to share our lives with you guys.”

BJ’s father, who is also a school administrator, explained that others before Lucas and Bresnan had attempted to make films about the town, “But they portrayed Pahokee from their viewpoint, not from the people; they overshot the people. And it was a lot of misconceptions. They just showed the run-down buildings. And we can find that in any community. … [But Ivete and Patrick] painted that perfect picture. It couldn’t be told any better. That actually portrayed the lives, what we go through, the rabbit hunting, the prom. … They came in and they became family.”

Classmate Jocabed added, “These are my classmates but we never knew each other on that personal level, and just for this film to be able to show their stories, it really touched me a lot. It just goes to show you don’t really know what battles people go through.” Jocabed’s own family struggles included her parents emigrating from Mexico and working long, back-breaking days as farm workers in order to provide a better life for their daughters. Inspired by their sacrifices, Jocabed became her class’s salutatorian and was accepted into the University of Florida, where she is now a sophomore working towards becoming a teacher of English as a second language.

BJ’s father brought attention to the film still used in promotional materials for the movie—an image of a young woman dancing in a field—and he explained that he sees it as a metaphor for the greater message of the story. “To me, what this symbolized was that misconception as just a rural farming town [where] the only way out was football. This picture symbolizes our younger generation now outgrowing that stereotype. And they’re leaping for greater bounds; they’re leaping out of the stereotype of farmers, out of [the idea that] the only way out is football. … And these kids have done that.”

Clemency

by Eric Hynes

In Clemency, the debut film by Chinonye Chukwu, Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden whose proud professionalism is haunted by an unspoken trauma thanks to her experiences carrying out state sanctioned executions. Bookended by two such experiences, the powerfully understated Clemency emerges from Bernadine’s point of view but also offers full portraits of other players in Chukwu’s chamber drama, from condemned prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) and his defense attorney (Richard Schiff), to Bernadine’s frustrated husband (Wendell Pierce). There’s an air of sadness and helpless inevitability that hangs above all the characters in the film, yet they’re still always trying to understand, connect, transcend, and perhaps find meaning in the doing, or perhaps in light of it.

As Chukwu explained during the post-screening Q&A, the script was the product of four years of “deep, deep dive research,” including visits with real life wardens and directors of corrections and prisoners, some of which she eventually did with Woodard in Ohio, where she moved to from New York City during the development years. “Then I went to prisons around the country and spoke to more wardens and lawyers, men exonerated from death row and men who still were on death row. I asked them to read my script and they ripped it apart, completely,” she said. “I also created a film program in women’s prisons called ‘Pens to Picture’ where I teach incarcerated women to make their own shorts. And all of that really informed every draft, and my directorial approach, and really grounded it in a level of reality, humanity, and hopefully authenticity.”

The cast and crew of “Clemency.” © 2019 Sundance Institute | Stephen Speckman

Hodge also made visits to prisons and met with prisoners, and noted how death row inmates are treated differently from others. “When they cross the yard, everybody’s supposed to turn their back and not look at them, not speak to them. It’s crazy. Their humanity is stripped to a degree,” he said, then worked to imagine his character fighting to live within that debased framework. “His whole reality is looking at the certainty of death, a hopeless reality. How do you gather the strength to find hope? You’re grabbing at every little thing you can,” he said.

Schiff talked somewhat similarly about defense attorneys tasked with pursuing a largely hopeless mission. “The curiosity of the man who chooses—which is different than Aldis’ character who has no choice in this matter—who chooses to spend his life fighting battles that he knows he will lose. As he says in the movie, that his big win is that his client gets to not die,” he said. “I have deep respect for people who fight those fights, and was honored to get to play someone like him.”

Chukwu spoke about why she elected to tell this story from Bernadine’s point of view, rather than from Anthony Woods’ or the defense attorney’s. “I was really struck to tell this story from this perspective after the execution of Troy Davis on September 21, 2011,” she said. “One of the things that really intrigued me and moved me, leading up to his execution, was that there was a group of retired wardens and directors of corrections who were a part of the hundreds of thousands of people protesting against his execution. And their urging of the governor to grant Troy clemency was not just on the grounds of potential innocence, but it was also speaking to the emotional and psychological consequences that they knew killing Troy would have on the corrections staff. It made me really think what must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? What are those emotional and psychological consequences those wardens were speaking to?”

“One aspect of why [Chukwu] wanted to do it, and I rallied behind it, was to look at people that we charge with carrying out the work that we decide, whether we’re pro or con,” Woodard said. “Nobody wants to do the business. We forget about them, and they suffer tremendous PTSD, on the level of people who are in multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. And I think it’s important for us to know. If you want to have state sanctioned executions, let’s meet the people that will do the work,” she said.

Knock Down the House

By Dana Kendall

You’ve probably heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress after she won a historic primary upset victory in New York in 2018. But you might not know about many of the other political outsiders who were inspired to run for office across the country in the wake of the 2016 election.

Knock Down the House chronicles the journeys of four women who took on the impossible, with the support of organizations like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress that help everyday people make their bids for office.

Amy Vilela of Nevada decided to run for Congress to fight for access to healthcare after the death of her daughter, who suffered an embolism following a hospital’s refusal to treat her because she didn’t have insurance.

Cori Bush of Missouri went up against a 50-year dynasty of father-and-son congressmen Bill and Lacy Clay, while Paula Jean Swearengin ran against a politician who was in the pocket of the coal industry, ignoring the poisoned water and air causing widespread illness and death for West Virginians.

The film by Rachel Lears gives us behind-the-scenes access to the trials and successes of each of the campaigns, culminating in the moments when a flabbergasted Ocasio-Cortez finds out that she has just won the New York seat.

Even though not all of the insurgent campaigns resulted in wins, their movement is drastically changing the political conversation, bringing attention to the issues that are affecting citizens most deeply. And each of the women who didn’t win their first bids for office guaranteed the audience at the premiere screening that this was not the last we would see of them.

When the group was asked how they summon the energy to fight with limited resources in such an exhausting and disparaging battle, Vilela shared that “getting the strength to run … really comes from your compassion and your care for other people. In my case, I had already lost my daughter; I could not save her. But I wasn’t going to sit back and watch other people lose their loved ones. Everything I did was out of love.”

For Swearengin, not running was not an option. “It’s survival for me. I love my home state and I love the people there, [and they] live in impoverished conditions comparable to a third-world country. People are still begging for clean water. … If we want change, we have to do it. And we do not need a lot of money.”

Ocasio-Cortez, joining by video, added that she hopes the film will inspire others to follow in the footsteps of these four everyday people who turned into forces to be reckoned with: “I’m so glad that this moment for all four of us was captured and documented, not just for the personal meaning of it but for everyday people to see that, yes, this is incredibly challenging, yes, the odds are long, but also it’s worth it, and each and every single person who submits themselves to run for office is doing a great service to this country.”

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Why We Celebrate Indigenous Voices

At Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, our core values in how we support our artists have been rooted in that foundation and spirit of change.

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