News from New York, Venice, and Telluride

Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock (2020)

For the first time in its history, the New York Film Festival will present the world premieres of three films by the same director in a single year. Since 2014, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows) has been working with the BBC to develop Small Axe, a series of five feature-length, stand-alone stories of the West Indian community in London that take place from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. In early June, Cannes sent out word that it would have premiered two of them, Lovers Rock and Mangrove, if the pandemic hadn’t made this year’s edition impossible to pull off. Now, in a week that’s already seen lineup news from Venice and Telluride as well, the NYFF has announced that Lovers Rock will open its fifty-eighth edition on September 25 and that the festival will also screen Mangrove and a third Small Axe feature, Red, White and Blue.

Two of the three films are based on real-life events. In 1968, Trinidadian activist Frank Crichlow opened a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, and it soon became a meeting place for like-minded artists, writers, and musicians. The clientele included such luminaries as Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Vanessa Redgrave. But the Mangrove also drew the Metropolitan Police, who raided the place twelve times over the course of a year and a half. On August 9, 1970, 150 people marched in protest to the local police station. Several arrests were made, and nine demonstrators, including Crichlow, were charged and tried for inciting a riot. The trial lasted fifty-five days, and after deliberating for eight hours, the jury voted to acquit. All nine were cleared, and Mangrove tells their story.

John Boyega and Steve Toussaint star in Red, White and Blue, which is based on the life of Leroy Logan, who joined the Metropolitan Police after seeing his father assaulted by two officers. Logan’s goal was to affect change from within, and in 2001, he was knighted by the Queen in recognition of the anti-racism policies he developed with the force. The fictional feature, Lovers Rock, is a love story set at a blues party in the early 1980s, and NYFF programmer Dennis Lim calls it “a celebration of Black lives as exhilarating as it is liberating.”

Venice has added two titles to its lineup, both slated to screen out of competition. As soon as the lockdown was lifted in Spain, Pedro Almodóvar teamed up with Tilda Swinton to realize a dream he’s harbored for years, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice. Written in 1928 and first staged at the Comédie-Française in 1930, The Human Voice is a half-hour play for a single female performer who delivers a monologue into a telephone receiver. On the other end of the line is her lover of the past five years; he’s set to marry another woman the following day. Simone Signoret and Liv Ullmann performed the play on stage, Ingrid Bergman on television, and Anna Magnani took on the role in Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 anthology film, L’amore.

Carmen Maura is seen in a production of the play in Almodóvar’s Law of Desire (1987), and Almodóvar has said that The Human Voice also inspired Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1998). This new film will be Almodóvar’s first in English; a second, based on short stories by Lucia Berlin collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women, is in the works. Over the past couple of weeks, Almodóvar’s younger brother, the producer Agustín Almodóvar, has delighted his followers on Twitter with photos of Pedro and Tilda on the set and outfitted with masks and face guards. As it happens, Swinton will be one of two recipients of a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement this year, along with Ann Hui, and Almodóvar was one of two last year—with Julie Andrews.

Regina King, who won an Oscar in 2018 for her performance in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, has directed well over a dozen episodes of such television series as Scandal and Insecure, but One Night in Miami will be her first theatrical feature. Written by Kemp Powers, who has also cowritten and codirected the forthcoming Pixar feature Soul, the screenplay explores what might have happened on the night of February 25, 1964, when Muhammad Ali, who, at the age of twenty-two, had just defeated Sonny Liston to become the new heavyweight boxing champion, met up with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown at the Hampton House Motel. One Night in Miami will also screen in Toronto as a gala presentation.

Talking to the Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Keegan, Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger looks back to Sunday, July 12, when a festival board member called her up to warn her that, as masks and social distancing were becoming politicized in the run-up to November’s election in Colorado’s third congressional district, she might not be able to count on local residents maintaining a safe environment in the Rocky Mountain tourist town. “One day,” says Huntsinger, “it felt, even if we’re only two hundred people watching movies outside for four days, that’s enough. Then that weekend, it was so clear and so clean, that I will not jeopardize anyone, and I don’t want us to be part of a problem.”

But the lineup for this year’s edition, which was to have taken place over the Labor Day weekend, had been set. A good number of the titles revealed yesterday will screen in Venice and/or Toronto, but others will have to forge new paths to theaters, and Keegan offers notes on how to track the progress of several of these orphans. “What happened in the 1920s after the pandemic of 1918 is people went back to movie-going,” says Huntsinger. “People are going to go back massively, and we’re going to have the roaring ’20s all over again.”

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