Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of “12 Years a Slave” and “Shame,” is best known for his searing big-screen work. So it is fitting that the New York Film Festival would turn to the British auteur to kick off its 58th edition with his new work “Lovers Rock. McQueen joins a long list of cinema legends such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and David Fincher, all of whom have had the opening night film at the annual gathering of movie-lovers.
But this is a year unlike any other in the history of film festivals, with the coronavirus scuttling best-laid plans and forcing organizers to change things up on the fly. Thus it makes sense that the film that McQueen is highlighting isn’t a “movie” in the strictest definition. Rather, it is part of the filmmaker’s Small Ax anthology series, a chapter in a collection of original films that tell the story of London’s West Indian community. They will premiere on BBC One and later air on Amazon Prime.
The selection shows the continued blurring of lines between big and small screens, with top directors such as McQueen, Luca Guadagnino, Jane Campion, and others moving back and forth between the mediums. The Toronto Film Festival has continued that tradition, choosing Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy,” a six-part TV drama that debuted on the BBC, as its closing night film.
“Lovers Rock” unfolds during a blues party in the early 1980s and tells a story of young love. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Alexander James-Blake, Kadeem Ramsay. “Lovers Rock” was co-written by Courttia Newland and McQueen. Two other films from the five-film anthology, “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue,” will also have their world premieres as part of this year’s main slate. The works, which examine racism and discrimination, seem to echo the political moment, one in which issues of diversity and representation are being widely debated and discussed.
“It’s an incredible honor and also very humbling to show three of my films at the New York Film Festival,” said McQueen. “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.”
“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. It stars Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, and Malachi Kirby, and was co-written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen.
“Red, White and Blue” tells the story of Leroy Logan, who saw his father assaulted by two policemen. He later joined the Metropolitan Police in order to change their racist attitudes from within. John Boyega and Steve Toussaint star in the film, which was co-written by Courttia Newland and McQueen.
“Mangrove” and “Lovers Rock” were both selected to be at this year’s Cannes Film Festival before the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival team to cancel its physical edition. Like Toronto, this year’s New York Film Festival is expected to be a mixture of physical and virtual events — relying on venues such as drive-ins in order to screen films safely.
“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,” said Eugene Hernandez, director of the New York Film Festival.
Last year’s opening night film was Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Previous opening night features include Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite,” Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”