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The BFI London Film Festival seemingly is on a mission.
Having dubbed its 2015 event the “year of the strong woman,” kicked off by the feminist historical drama Suffragette, it went on to offer a festival-topping number of films from female directors and saw Geena Davis host the first symposium for her Institute on Gender in Media outside the U.S.
But for its 60th edition, the London fest is going a step further in its quest to spark debate.
While there’s no catchy tagline — yet — the 2016 event has set diversity front and center in the conversation. Director Amma Asante will open the proceedings Oct. 5 with A United Kingdom, nabbed recently by Fox Searchlight, and a day later the rising British filmmaker and the film’s star David Oyelowo (who also appears in Queen of Katwe, another film with a LFF gala screening) will be joined by Barry Jenkins (whose Moonlight is in the official competition) and filmmakers Julie Dash and Noel Clarke as participants in the festival’s headline industry event: the Black Star Symposium, a major discussion surrounding the obstacles faced by black talent in the U.K.
Ashton Sanders in Moonlight.
In addition, the British Film Institute is sponsoring an entire season of Black Star events immediately following the London fest that will celebrate black actors onscreen.
“We’re going to have a room of influencers and people working across the sector, from greenlighters to distributors and the exhibition sector — that’s who we’ve been inviting,” says festival director Clare Stewart, adding that response to the Davis event in 2015 was “very positive.” “We can detect that the industry is embracing the discussion.”
The symposium conversation will explore not only why such actors as Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba have relocated to the U.S. to find career breaks but also how that trans-Atlantic movement wasn’t always a one-way street. Among Black Star’s key figures will be the late Paul Robeson, whose initial international acclaim came for his onstage work during the 1930s in London, away from the discrimination of Jim Crow-era America.
“I hope there’s a greater sense of engagement from where we’ve come from so we’re not always starting from scratch,” says Ashley Clark, who programmed the Black Star season. “And also an understanding that diversity is not simply popping up onscreen. … It’s pertinent to every aspect of the film industry.”
Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Madina Nalwanga in ‘Queen of Katwe.’
Clark adds that no black British filmmaker has made more than four theatrical features, and he hopes the Black Star Symposium and season will leave festival attendees questioning why.
Change does appear to be in the air: Asante is prepping her fourth feature, Where Hands Touch, set in World War II Berlin, and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen — set to receive the BFI Fellowship honor during the fest — has the heist thriller Widows looking likely to become his fourth film. And almost as though to pre-empt Black Star, McQueen has his long-awaited Robeson biopic in the works.
Says Clark: “We need to see more stories being told. I hope [Black Star] inspires a thirst in people to see more of that.”
The 3 Best Venues to Take in the LFF
Make the most of the festival by spending time at these plush cinema hubs.
Shaftesbury Ave., W1D 7DH
Many of the festival’s activities will take place at this cavernous yet cozy multiscreen cinema tucked away in the heart of the West End. Despite being only a year old, the snug members’ bar on the first floor (you should be fine to get in but will need to befriend a card-carrier to buy a drink) has been snapped up by industry types as a perfectly unstuffy spot for a quiet business meeting or post-work tipple.
Embankment Garden Cinema
Victoria Embankment Gardens
This brand-new pop-up theater will open solely for the 12 days of the festival. This isn’t your typical makeshift affair, however: The temporary structure offers 780 cinema seats, full Dolby Surround sound and 4K digital projection. And nestled in a park by the Thames, it’s a short stroll over Waterloo Bridge from the lively bars and restaurants of the South Bank.
Belvedere Road, SE1 8XT
The jewel in the BFI’s crown, this long has been the U.K.’s home for cinematic appreciation, welcoming the cream of the world’s filmmaking elite through its doors for special screenings, discussions and other events. Enjoy a prefilm drink at the buzzy Riverfront bar or something a little more intimate at the Benugo Bar & Kitchen, which offers a “pre-theater” menu from 5 to 7p.m.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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