Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Luce, directed by Julius Onah, based on a play of the same title written by J.C. Lee. The two also wrote the screenplay. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, based on a memoir of the same title by William Kamkwamba.
Last month, I attended the Windrider Forum, an ecumenical Christian gathering of filmmakers and theologians held during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The year 2019 marked the first time the two worked in concert: Windrider moderating panel discussions, and the Sundance Institute (the film education branch of the film festival) supplying the filmmakers.
A Nigerian New Wave dominated the week’s proceedings. Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke of faith and reason elements in his environmental drama,The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
Grand Jury prizewinner Chinonye Chukwu stated her intentional staging of the execution scene as a crucifixion in the harrowing death row original drama, Clemency.
Julius Onah detailed his semi-autobiographical tale in Luce. All made reference to varying degrees of how their faith upbringings informed their films.
Luce began as an Off-Broadway play written by J.C. Lee and was adapted into a feature film with the assistance of Julius Onah. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. plays the title character, Luce Edgar. He’s a high-achieving high school student in every way imaginable: star athlete, straight A student and leader in various extra-curriculars.
As the story unfolds, however, we learn of Luce’s horrific back-story; warring marauders conscripted into child soldiering during the Congo’s civil war. Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) are the overly generous parents who adopted him at the age of 10 and assigned him the best of therapists to work through his trauma. And he did. Or did he?
Octavia Spencer plays Luce’s history teacher. While he scores high marks in her class, it’s a recent writing assignment that raises her hackles. Luce chooses a violent revolutionary to research. That curious choice coupled with the teacher invading Luce’s privacy (she discovers a stash of banned fireworks in his locker) exacerbates a previously hidden penchant for lying and deceit.
My filming-going priest-friend, a professor of Catholic literature at the University of Portland, observed Luce derives its title from Lucifer, the prince of deception and lies.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind spins more of a family-friendly adaptation of a true story. A village in Malawi, similar to many villages in Malawi, suffers from a drought. A young boy named William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) read about windmills during his truncated stay in primary school. After much opposition from his villagers, his father (Chiwetel Ejiofor), included, he is eventually able to reinvent windmills into his context that produces water to flow into once-barren fields.
The movie captures well the need for subsidiarity, as the absence of this principle leads to an overweening federal government that cares little about the village’s local predicament, and, in fact, acts as a deterrent to human entrepreneurship.
Somewhat lost in the movie, however, is the critique of indigenous religions, which the author terms “magic.” They believe prayers alone can bring about an end to their dust bowl. Instead, it’s the monotheistic communities and Catholicism, in particular, that see a God who created the natural world in a certain order, and scientific inquiry is really the impulse of someone uncovering the natural order.
Reading the book, I was reminded of the tale of St. Boniface, apostle to the Germans in the 8th century. To show the power of Christ, he demonstrated that trees were not to be worshiped and so cut down the Thunder Oak of Thor. The God who breathed into life the natural world was the one to be worshiped. Any creations of the natural world of his fell under the dominion of humans and could be used as they saw ethically fit. Hence, electricity, running water and the Christmas tree.
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple (‘Luce’); Netflix (‘Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’)
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.