Festiville at LFF: Part 1—Black People Doing Cool Shit

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Ella Kemp frocks up to join real people in a real cinema to celebrate real cowboys and cowgirls, at the opening night of the BFI 2021 London Film Festival. 

The bass is rumbling, Idris Elba is f-bombing, and the audience is whooping. It’s the first night of the 2021 British Film Institute’s London Film Festival and we’re sat in the glorious Royal Festival Hall within the Southbank Centre (the first time ever the venue is partnering with the festival, and long may this relationship continue).

This is the world premiere of Jeymes Samuel’s visionary Western, The Harder They Fall, and to be back in a cinema—in this cinema, for this festival, for this film—feels like magic. 

Even the bustling red carpet was dry, which would not be noteworthy if we were talking about anywhere but London, any other time than October. No rain = a gift for this glittering night. It’s not just that it’s our first in-person event in so long (although it’s absolutely that—even BFI Chief Executive Ben Roberts tells us that just two days ago he was at home watching Squid Game in his pants). Tonight’s loud, bold film is the debut feature of a Londoner

Jeymes Samuel loves his city and his city dearly loves him back. The 2021 LFF is stacked with the very best picks of the fall festivals, and a few more tasty premieres besides, but The Harder they Fall is a perfect choice to open this year’s edition: a movie about a bunch of outlaws cinema has often forgotten: Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, Cherokee Bill, James Beckwourth. African-American outlaws and cowboys that have been historically ignored, despite their fascinating, grisly crimes. “These. People. Existed.” Samuel tells us from the off. 

Joining Samuel on the red carpet: cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, editor Tom Eagles, and co-producers James Lassiter and, oh, you know, Jay-Z, along with cast members who exude generous, luminous energy. In no particular order: Deon Cole, Jonathan Majors, Edi Gathegi, Regina King, RJ Cyler, the aforementioned Elba. Cyler wears an immaculate three-piece raspberry-pink suit, King shimmers in lime-green, but these stars could be wearing dungarees and still glow. 

If these guys make you wait in your seat for 90 minutes for the screening to actually begin, you do it and say thank you. It’s this adrenaline—Samuel’s swagger onto the stage with figurative gunshots aplenty, amping up our rapturous applause even further—that has been so missed. Cole’s excellent dance moves, Elba’s fake-coy entrance, Majors’ casual smize, Jay-Z’s polite entrance after Samuel tells us, “You might know him simply as ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh’.” We’re all in on the joke and everyone feels welcome. 

The BFI has a rule against cursing in speeches and presentations, but try telling that to Elba, Samuel’s fellow Londoner and lifelong Hackney devotee, while he’s beaming and telling us how “f—king great” it feels to be here. 

The filmmaker and his team make sure everybody in the room—and around the country, too, as the Opening Gala is broadcast in cinemas across the UK as part of the festival’s growing commitment to expand its reach beyond the capital—knows we are here to kick things off with a bang—spiritually and literally. This ain’t your Granddaddy’s festival opener. 

As programmer Grace Barber-Plentie tells us, The Harder they Fall is nothing less than Black excellence. As Letterboxd reviewer Terrelle later writes, “The Harder They Fall is a game changer.”

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The titles roll. 

The Royal Festival Hall boasts earsplitting speakers, perfectly suited to Samuel’s bass-heavy score, where you feel the sound in your bones as you see the dust tremble beneath horses' hooves on screen. The opening credits demand that we whoop, while every character is introduced with power, violence and wit. 

It’s hard to communicate the energy in the room in words on a page, but Lola does a pretty good job: “yes yes yes yes YESSSSS !!!!! unmissable and unparalleled. the CAST??!!! yes!!!! the soundtrack???!! heck YES!!!!” (I can confirm this is the exact correct number of exclamation marks for the mood of the night.) 

The Harder They Fall is, Fraser gleefully notes, “a black movie not about suffering! just black people doing cool shit! love to see it”. And these guys do so much cool shit. Shootouts and stand-offs, but with enough slicing wit and corrosive power to burn the sleepiest house and quietest town down. “I’ve waited for a movie like this for so long,” writes Hanna. “The sheer scale of the whole project warrants it,” agrees Euan, urging us to head to cinemas. 

The Harder They Fall will, however, land on Netflix on October 22, where the film’s excellent dialogue may have a slightly better chance against the sound design than it did in the Royal Festival Hall, where some Letterboxd members felt let down. “The bass reverb was so out of control that I could barely hear the dialogue for most of the film,” writes Holly-Beth, feedback echoed by Klára and Noah: “Can’t say I expected to experience auditory shell shock from the Royal Festival Hall’s surround sound system.” 

But then, credit to Samuel: when your film is so galvanising even in such circumstances, what a treat to have the option to rewatch it when you see fit in just a matter of weeks. (Even if it means missing a certain TUDUM experience.)

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The reason I feel compelled to tell you a bit about the party for the Opening Gala of the BFI London Film Festival is not for bragging rights (but, in fairness, this is my first film festival in 18 months, so), but because it felt—as these things so often should but rarely do—like a continuation of the film. 

Freemasons Hall, the host venue for the night, boasted three different bars, a live band and many excellent canapés. It was vibrant and bustling, we had stars in our eyes, and Samuel and co lit up the dance floor. A sizable VIP area needed to be blocked off to make way for the partner of one of the film’s producers. That is correct, sharp ones: Beyoncé came to show her support. I repeat: Beyoncé. Came. To. London. Film. Festival. 

As I make my way home (after a strict 1:00am curfew, shoutout to the event organisers who recognise we have a busy, brilliant fortnight of movies ahead of us), I think back on the standout moments of the night, and the headache I feel from, honestly, smiling too hard and beaming with such pride at what this city has done. Who it has raised. And how much more we have to enjoy throughout the festival.

As Connor writes, “10 hours later and I’m still running on adrenaline.” It is so, so good to be back. 

Ella Kemp

Stay tuned for more BFI 2021 London Film Festival instalments from Ella, George Fenwick, and Alicia Haddick