Film at Lincoln Center has set the Steve McQueen-directed Lovers Rock as the opening-night film of the 58th New York Film Festival. The film will be making its world premiere, and the festival is going heavily into the work of McQueen, who became the first Black filmmaker to win the Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave.
Lovers Rock is part of his Small Axe anthology, which comprises five original films by the director. Two other films from the anthology, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, will also have their world premieres as part of the NYFF’s Main Slate, the rest of which will be disclosed in the coming weeks.
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This becomes the second straight year in which NYFF chose at its opening nighter a film that will be most widely viewed on a streaming service. Last year, that was the Martin Scorsese-directed The Irishman, though Netflix preceded with a theatrical bow that lasted through awards season. Every fall fest this time is navigating around a coronavirus pandemic that has placed all kinds of uncertainty for pictures eyeing theater runs this fall and is the antithesis of the communal experience that makes film festivals special as audiences discover new films together. It isn’t even clear how widely attended festival premieres will be, or in the case of Toronto, whether critics and the Hollywood crowd would even be allowed across the border of Canada as the virus continues to spike in the U.S.
Lovers Rock will premiere on BBC One later this year and Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. Most NYFF kickoff movies have runs timed to awards season, where the genius Brit McQueen is usually encamped when he releases a film, but this is going to be a limited series play and a draw for Emmys and Golden Globes, a new one on NYFF. BBC Studios distributes internationally.
Organizers of the 58th edition of the New York Film Festival are placing a focus on social distance conscious outdoor and virtual screenings, with indoor screenings only a possibility if allowed by state and health officials. Film at Lincoln Center is partnering with arts and citywide cultural institutions from across the city this year to share films with New York City communities at two drive-ins: the Queens Drive-In at Flushing Meadows Corona Park — created by Rooftop Films, the New York Hall of Science, and Museum of the Moving Image — and the Brooklyn Drive-In at The Brooklyn Army Terminal, created by Rooftop Films and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
Every major film fest has its own vibe, and NYFF has been distinguished by its black-tie premieres staged for wealthy patrons at its elegant upper West Side Lincoln Center venue. During the years when the fest opened with such Best Picture hopefuls as The Irishman, The Favourite, Captain Phillips, Life of Pi, Pulp Fiction, Chariots of Fire or The Social Network, had the NYFF head suggested that the festival’s saving grace would be drive-in theaters… well, it would have been a collective pearl-clutching moment for the black-tie set, followed by putting the festival director under observation. But now, that endangered species of movie going, the drive-in, will be a useful partial solution to the new reality and challenge of keeping a prestige festival going under unprecedented hardship circumstances.
Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, McQueen’s films each tell a different story involving London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. They are produced by Turbine Studios and McQueen’s Lammas Park for BBC One with Amazon Studios co-producing in the U.S. The five films that make up Small Axe are Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Alex Wheatle, Education and Red, White and Blue.
Lovers Rock tells a fictional story of young love and music at a blues party in the early 1980s. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite the BAFTA Rising Star award recipient Micheal Ward (Top Boy). Shaniqua Okwok (Boys), Kedar Williams-Stirling (Sex Education), Ellis George (Doctor Who), Alexander James-Blake (Top Boy), Kadeem Ramsay (Blue Story) also star, as well as Francis Lovehall and Daniel Francis-Swaby, who make their screen debuts. McQueen wrote Lovers Rock with Courttia Newland.
As for the other two films, Mangrove is the true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970, and the highly publicized trial that followed. The trial was the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Cast is headed by Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Shaun Parkes (Lost in Space), and Malachi Kirby (Curfew) star alongside Rochenda Sandall (Line of Duty), Jack Lowden (The Long Song), Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsmen), Gershwyn Eustache Jnr (The Gentlemen), Nathaniel Martello-White (Collateral), Richie Campbell (Liar), Jumayn Hunter (Les Misérables), and Gary Beadle (Summer of Rockets). Mangrove was co-written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen.
Red, White and Blue spotlights the true story of Leroy Logan, who saw his father assaulted by two policemen, motivating him to join the Metropolitan Police and change their racist attitudes from within. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Steve Toussaint (Prince of Persia) star with newcomers Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal and Jaden Oshenye. Red, White and Blue was co-written by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen.
Mangrove and Lovers Rock are part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection of a festival which for all practical purposes got canceled by the pandemic.
Said McQueen: “It’s an incredible honor and also very humbling to show three of my films at the New York Film Festival. It’s especially meaningful for me at this particular time to share these stories as a Black man of West Indian heritage. I’m grateful to the NYFF for their generosity and wish everyone a safe and healthy festival.”
Said NYFF Director Eugene Hernandez: “In the coming weeks we’ll unveil the films our programmers have selected for the 2020 New York Film Festival. For months we’ve worked to both sustain and refresh NYFF — a champion of film as art since 1963 — and we’re honored that filmmaker Steve McQueen accepted our invitation to open the 58th New York Film Festival in an unprecedented manner, with one of three remarkable new films he’ll unveil at NYFF.”
NYFF Director of Programming Dennis Lim said the director “reaches a new level of mastery with the Small Axe films. These are works of historical drama that speak powerfully and urgently to our present moment of reckoning over police brutality and systemic racism. They tell stories of outward struggle and inner conflict but also of everyday joy. We can’t wait to share these revelatory films with audiences, and to open the festival with Lovers Rock, a celebration of Black lives as exhilarating as it is radical.”
Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke said “We are proud to have Steve in our Amazon family and to be able to provide a home for his groundbreaking and relevant anthology of films, Small Axe. It’s an incredible gift for us to bring such a powerful project to Prime Video. Lovers Rock, Mangrove, and Red, White and Blue shine a bright and urgent light on the courageous heroes who have stood up to fight against systemic racism; their stories are both specific and universal in their quest for equality and peace. It’s the highest honor for all of us to have three of Steve’s works be selected to both open and present at this year’s New York Film Festival.”
BBC Films Director and exec producer Rose Garnett said the prime NYFF slot for McQueen’s films “speaks to the urgency and brilliance of what he has created, and all of us at the BBC feel hugely proud to be part of these films. Audiences everywhere will be electrified and deeply moved by this extraordinary work.”
The NYFF Main Slate selection committee, chaired by Lim, includes Hernandez, Florence Almozini, K. Austin Collins, and Rachel Rosen. Campari is the exclusive spirits partner for the 58th New York Film Festival and the presenting partner of opening night.
Here are the past New York Film Festival opening-night films since the festival’s inception in 1963:
2019 The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US)
2018 The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/UK/US)
2017 Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater, US)
2016 13TH (Ava DuVernay, US)
2015 The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, US)
2014 Gone Girl (David Fincher, US)
2013 Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, US)
2012 Life of Pi (Ang Lee, US)
2011 Carnage (Roman Polanski, France/Poland)
2010 The Social Network (David Fincher, US)
2009 Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France)
2008 The Class (Laurent Cantet, France)
2007 The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, US)
2006 The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK)
2005 Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney, US)
2004 Look at Me (Agnès Jaoui, France)
2003 Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, US)
2002 About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, US)
2001 Va savoir (Jacques Rivette, France)
2000 Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
1999 All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
1998 Celebrity (Woody Allen, US)
1997 The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, US)
1996 Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, UK)
1995 Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou, China)
1994 Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, US)
1993 Short Cuts (Robert Altman, US)
1992 Olivier Olivier (Agnieszka Holland, France)
1991 The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland/France)
1990 Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen, US)
1989 Too Beautiful for You (Bertrand Blier, France)
1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
1987 Dark Eyes (Nikita Mikhalkov, Soviet Union)
1986 Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, US)
1985 Ran (Akira Kurosawa, Japan)
1984 Country (Richard Pearce, US)
1983 The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, US)
1982 Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany)
1981 Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, UK)
1980 Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, US)
1979 Luna (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy/US)
1978 A Wedding (Robert Altman, US)
1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Agnès Varda, France)
1976 Small Change (François Truffaut, France)
1975 Conversation Piece (Luchino Visconti, Italy)
1974 Don’t Cry with Your Mouth Full (Pascal Thomas, France)
1973 Day for Night (François Truffaut, France)
1972 Chloe in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, France)
1971 The Debut (Gleb Panfilov, Soviet Union)
1970 The Wild Child (François Truffaut, France)
1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, US)
1968 Capricious Summer (Jiri Menzel, Czechoslovakia)
1967 The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria)
1966 Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia)
1965 Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, France)
1964 Hamlet (Grigori Kozintsev, USSR)
1963 The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, Mexico)
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