The London Film Festival opened its 60th edition Wednesday with a spotlight on ethnic minority actors and filmmakers, reflecting a debate over the lack of diversity currently raging in Hollywood.
“We really wanted to shine a light on black stars,” festival director Clare Stewart told AFP as the event opened with a tale of inter-racial love in Botswana by British director Amma Asante who was born to Ghanaian parents.
“I’m incredibly excited by just how dynamic, and broad, and urgent and challenging and entertaining are a lot of the films that are coming from black storytellers in this line-up,” Stewart added.
First up was Asante’s “A United Kingdom”, an account of the real-life marriage of Botswana prince Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, and a white English woman, Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike.
Pike said her character had “tremendous pluck”, adding: “The certainty with which she undertook her love and commitment to her marriage, I found it inspiring.”
At the time, Botswana was called Bechuanaland and was a protectorate of the British empire. Oyelowo, who also co-produced the film, said it was about the power of love and shared history.
“My hope is that when people see this film they will see themselves in both Ruth and Seretse,” he told reporters.
African and British history were “inextricably” linked, and the film showed “why we are proud to call ourselves British and why we are proud to call ourselves Africans”, said Oyelowo, whose parents were Nigerian.
– Provoke debate –
Asante said confronting the lack of diversity in the industry meant presenting more stories “that are relevant to the world and happen to have slightly different characters to the one we’ve been traditionally used to seeing on screen”.
“It’s audiences, it’s producers, it’s us as filmmakers taking responsibility for when we know we have a default character that could be something else, could be female, could be of another race or ethnicity,” she said.
Another true-life story brought to life at the festival is “Queen of Katwe”, which traces the journey of Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi from slums to world champion.
Directed by Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair, it stars Oyelowo as Mutesi’s trainer and Lupita Nyong’o, the Oscar-winning star of “12 Years A Slave”, playing her mother.
London will also host the European premiere of the documentary “The 13th” by Ava DuVernay, which is named after the amendment of the US constitution that abolished slavery.
DuVernay — who also directed Oscar-winning 2014 civil rights movie “Selma” — has been an outspoken supporter of the “OscarsSoWhite” protest about diversity in the Academy Awards.
Her latest film examines how the US judicial system is biased against black people, and covers the birth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Another film of note, “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins, is a coming-of-age tale of a young man living among drug addicts in Miami who gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality.
“We are a festival that wants very much to provoke debates and discussions around issues that we found important and diversity is a very, very significant issue, especially in these challenging times,” Stewart said.
The festival will be followed with a new season by the British Film Institute (BFI) dedicated to celebrating “the range, versatility and power of black actors”, she said.