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After a pandemic-impacted year where the BFI London Film Festival was, like so many others, forced to scale back much of its offerings with very limited in-person events and almost zero international guests, Wednesday night saw the U.K.’s biggest cinema event roar back to life.
The Royal Festival Hall, on the banks of the River Thames and a new setting after the festival shifted from its traditional base in Leicester Square, was the location for the grand 2021 revival and where Regina King, Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regé-Jean Page, Ted Sarandos, Jay-Z and, according to reports (she ducked the photographers), Beyoncé, were among the major names in attendance for the opening night world premiere of Netflix’s all-star, all-Black Western The Harder They Fall.
Following a week of rain, the weather also seemed to be on LFF’s side, with the red carpet remaining dry and guests able to enjoy a rare spot of October sunshine. And while the Royal Festival Hall was at full capacity for the screening, organizers were still trying to keep in line with the times, all guests asked in advance to report a recent negative COVID-19 test and encouraged to keep their masks on throughout (although few were seen wearing them). A sizable party — something else that has been in short supply at film festivals over the last 18 months — followed at London’s Freemasons’ Hall.
The Harder They Fall — a fast-paced and bloody revenge thriller from first time director Jeymes Samuel (better known as singer-songwriter The Bullitts) — sees King, Elba and Majors appear alongside Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield. And while the latter three may not have made the trip to London, other names expected to appear at the festival over the course of the next 11 days include the likes of Kristen Stewart for Spencer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons for The Power of the Dog, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, Joel Coen and Frances McDormand for The Tragedy of Macbeth, and Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench for Belfast.
Although a Western might not seem like a traditional curtain-raiser for a British festival, it was the perfect choice for director Samuel, a Londoner raised on Harrow Road in the north-west of the capital. Speaking at a press conference earlier in the day, the musician and filmmaker joked that he had previously gatecrashed the London Film Festival on several occasions.
“I’ve snuck into LFF so many times,” he said. “So to be here with my debut film is poetic in so many ways.”
Speaking on stage, Jay-Z — who produced the film — said that “to be releasing in London, where he’s from, has to be a dream.”
King was full of praise for the first-time director, saying that there was “nothing first-time director-ish” about his work. “I’ve seen directors doing this for a lot longer not have as much clarity,” she added.
Much noise was made on the night about The Harder We Fall‘s all-Black cast, something not seen previously in Westerns. All the characters in the film were actual real-life people from the Wild West, Samuel claimed, and while the story itself may be fictitious he said he wanted to “assemble them like The Avengers.”
“It’s so much fun, and it’s pushing boundaries,” said festival director Tricia Tuttle at the premiere. “Also, it stars possibly our most glamorous BFI [British Film Institute] governor, Idris Elba.”
Elba, who has known Samuel for 15 years, said he believed The Harder They Fall was a “revolutionary” movie. “It’s very hard to redefine a genre, but I think James has done it.”
The BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 6-17.
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