Steve McQueen, Letitia Wright Open Scaled-Back BFI London Film Festival

Steve McQueen and Letitia Wright at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival opening night screening of Mangrove.
David M. Benett / Getty

Steve McQueen and Letitia Wright at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival opening night screening of Mangrove.

'Mangrove' "couldn't be a better film for us to open with, or a more important film," says festival director Tricia Tuttle.

Steve McQueen helped raise the curtain on the 2020 BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday night, with his feature Mangrove — one of his five films in the BBC/Amazon Small Axe anthology — getting its European premiere in London and simultaneously across select cinemas around the U.K.

A significantly paired-back opening night severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis saw the usual red carpet scrapped along with the post-screening reception, and a much reduced audience at the BFI Southbank (the festival has previously opened at the Odeon in Leicester Square). That said, McQueen and his Mangrove stars Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall and Shaun Parkes did pose for a socially-distanced photo shoot beforehand at BFI headquarters.

Mangrove — telling the story of a group of Black activists who became known as the Mangrove 9 after their landmark trial in 1970, the first to officially recognize racism with the British police force — is one of just a small number in the festival's lineup screening in cinemas, with the majority being premiered online as part of a hybrid model the festival team arranged earlier this year, having anticipated a second-wave of the pandemic.

The film also marks the second time McQueen has opened the festival in three years, his crime thriller Widows on curtain-raising duties in 2018.

"I think he's a filmmaker who gets better and better with every work," festival director Tricia Tuttle told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the opening. "Here he has five films that are really close to his heart, really important untold stories in British history, with some incredible actors."

Tuttle also acknowledged that Mangrove and the four other Small Axe films, set within London's West Indian community from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, were rather poignantly timed.

"It is so resonant this year," she said. "Steve couldn't have known when he started making it just how resonant would be in that we'd be living in another major civil rights moment. It couldn't be a better film for us to open with, or a more important film."

This year's London Film Festival lands amid troubled times for the cinema industry, opening just days after the news broke that Cineworld, the biggest cinema chain in the U.K., would be temporarily shutting its doors due to the pandemic and major releases continuing to be pushed back by studios.

The festival's central base for the past few years has been London's Picturehouse Central, owned by Cineworld, and while Tuttle said its closure wouldn't be impacting the hybrid festival model, she said it was affecting the entire festival team emotionally.

"We all have many friends who work in the exhibition sector, and it's really hard to see. There will be job losses, that's really hard to deal with and our hearts go out to all of those people who are hugely affected and will continue to be affected."