American Factory, Luce, and the Potential Problems with Allegories

Image courtesy of Netflix.

American Factory: ** ½
Luce: * ½  

Whether it’s Fritz Lang’s M or Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, allegories have always played a prominent role in film history. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many contemporary directors have made films that play as political or economic allegories. Scores of recent films – Beatriz at Dinner, The Shape of Water, Get Out, Isle of Dogs, Us, Transit, and so on – have used the stories of particular individuals to convey larger and more abstract messages about pressing societal issues, such as immigration, inequality, and racism.

In the past month, however, two new releases served as a reminder that such allegories don’t always “work.” The first, American Factory, is the latest documentary from Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. For those who haven’t seen it, the film depicts the conflicts that ensue after Fuyao, a Chinese glass manufacturing company, takes over a former car factory in Ohio. Since Fuyao’s CEO decides to use both American and Chinese manpower, white Americans who once worked for GM find themselves working alongside imported Chinese laborers who barely speak English.

In observing how these two groups of workers interact with one another, American Factory tries to make a broader statement about the differences between the West and East. We’re told that the Chinese value productivity and efficiency – even if, as in the case of Fuyao, attaining those ideals means subjecting employees to brutal working conditions. By contrast, America is portrayed as a country that values workers’ welfare, as illustrated when Fuyao’s American workers organize a vote to form a union.

Image courtesy of Netflix.

By setting up this kind of West-East dichotomy, American Factory ends up playing as an allegory about the American economy. In Bognar and Reichert’s worldview, America is depicted as an emblem of unionism and workers’ rights. And according to the two of them, outside forces like globalization and Chinese-style capitalism are slowly destroying this tradition of labor organizing.

For anyone with knowledge of American labor history, however, this allegory proves a bit too neat. Well before the rise of China and globalization, after all, purely American laws like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had already helped bring about a steep, decades-long decline in American union membership. In recent years, moreover, many significant blows to unionism – right-to-work laws, Wisconsin’s notorious Act 10, Janus v. AFSCME – have also been purely American in origin.

Bognar and Reichert, to be sure, are hardly wrong in arguing that China and America are different. But their portrayal of American labor’s decline nevertheless feels incomplete and simplistic. In making an allegory about the dangers of Chinese-style capitalism, the film neglects that some of the biggest threats to American labor come not from outside, but from Americans themselves.

Image courtesy of Neon.

Julius Onah’s Luce, meanwhile, is an allegory whose subject matter begs to be treated as anything but that. The plot is intricate and difficult to describe. But essentially, the titular protagonist (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a black high school student who lives in Virginia with his adoptive parents, a white couple named Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Once a child soldier in Eritrea who “learned how to shoot a gun before driving a car,” Luce is now an accomplished debater, the captain of his school’s track team, and a likely valedictorian.

Shortly after the film’s start, however, two incidents cast doubt on Luce’s reputation as a perfect student. First, he submits a history paper in which he seemingly advocates the use of violence to solve racism. Second, his history teacher, a black woman named Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker. In both cases, Luce justifies his behavior with reasonable-sounding explanations, but Wilson and his parents still come to suspect that there’s more than he’s letting on.

Thanks to Luce’s theatrical structure and dialogue, the film’s characters become symbols who represent the state of race relations in post-Obama America. Luce, for instance, is portrayed as an Obama-esque figure, a seemingly flawless individual who illustrates white people’s willingness to support blacks who aren’t “too black.” Amy and Peter are archetypal white liberals – namely, well-meaning whites who don’t fully grasp the implications of their privilege. Luce’s closest friend on the track team is a “black black,” the kind of imperfect black person whom many whites ignore in favor of Obama-esque figures like Luce. And so on.

Ironically, however, one of Luce’s core narrative messages is that people shouldn’t be treated as mere symbols. Throughout the film, Luce expresses frustration that so many people try to make him fit abstract, simplified, and preconceived notions of what blacks can or should be. For instance, he complains that Wilson merely sees him as someone who emblematizes the overcoming of racism, angrily noting that “I’m not gonna be somebody’s symbol just to make them feel better.” Similarly, after his parents question his integrity, he accuses them of stereotyping black people as either “saints” or “monsters.”

Image courtesy of Neon.

A different way to understand the problems with Luce is to look at how people have written about it. In their reviews, many critics mainly praised the film’s willingness to discuss important ideas. For instance, The Film Stage’s Jake Howell commented that the film is “full of meaty discussion points that will challenge audiences throughout 2019 and beyond.” Similarly, Variety’s Peter Debruge called Luce a “discussion-generating film” that “lasers in on questions of racism, prejudice, and individual potential in America.”

The nature of this praise indirectly reflects how Luce treats its characters. As these reviews suggest, the film is primarily interested in portraying and analyzing contemporary sociopolitical problems. And to that end, it sees its characters less as individuals than as tools that it can use to discuss said problems. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn put it best when he noted that “each character in ‘Luce’ carries a representative power; they’re societal figures seeking to resolve the ugliest tensions afflicting American society.”

In itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that a film’s characters carry some symbolic import. What makes Luce problematic, however, is that it adopts this symbolic approach even as its narrative argues that we should see people as non-symbolic and multi-dimensional. Such a message is uniquely unsuited to an allegorical treatment – and ultimately, this inconsistency between approach and theme turns Luce into a massive act of intellectual hypocrisy.

Image courtesy of Neon.

***

American Factory (2019) Luce (2019)
Starring: N/A Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Octavia Spencer
Naomi Watts
Tim Roth
Running Time: 115 minutes 109 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not rated R
Produced by: Steven Bognar
Julia Reichert
Jeff Reichert
Julie Parker Benello
Julius Onah
John Baker
Andrew Yang
Written by: N/A J. C. Lee
Julius Onah
Directed by: Steven Bognar
Julia Reichert
Julius Onah