LONDON: With Idris Elba leading an impressive all-black cast and Jay-Z among the producers, the premiere of Netflix’s reimagined western “The Harder They Fall” opened the London Film Festival with a bang Wednesday.
The movie, a directorial debut for Londoner Jeymes Samuel, showcases an array of black talent portraying real-life historical characters from the Old West in a fictional plot, set to a reggae and beats-laden soundtrack.
Samuel, who co-produced and co-wrote the original screenplay, left longtime friend Elba with little choice but to play Rufus Buck, a violent and feared outlaw of the era.
“[It was] ‘you’re doing it’ ... We grew up together ... and here we are making a Western,” Elba joked, as the pair discussed the film at a news conference with other cast and crew ahead of the premiere.
A singer-songwriter and music producer who worked with Jay-Z on tracks for “The Great Gatsby” in 2013, Samuel said collaborating again reaffirmed the rap star’s talents go well beyond music.
“The interesting thing is he’s super cine-literate,” the 42-year-old filmmaker said.
“People think [of] the name Jay-Z and they automatically assume ... music,” he added, noting he was vastly knowledgeable about both Westerns and “film in general”.
Samuel said he landed a “dream cast” – which also includes actor-director Regina King as Buck’s sidekick “Treacherous” Trudy Smith, and Jonathan Majors as his rival outlaw Nat Love.
LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz and Edi Gathegi also star in a story of revenge on the plains of Texas, scored with pulsing music that features Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, among others.
The novice director, who grew up watching Westerns on British television, explained “the genre of the Old West was always alluring” but that he wanted to “do more with it”.
“The scope that they showed those stories through was very narrow,” Samuel said. “Women of all colours were always subservient. If you were a person of colour, you were less than human.”
Apart from three screenings at the London Film Festival and some showings in select US theatres, “The Harder They Fall” will get its global release on Netflix on November 3.
The streaming platform is “the right place” for the highly cinematic film, according to co-producer James Lassiter, who persuaded Samuel of its virtues.
“The goal if we’re going to tell a story like this, with this cast, is to have as many people around the world [with] access to it,” Lassiter said. “Sometimes when you do a theatrical release, there’s these built-in biases, like no one wants to see an all-black cast ... In certain territories they will tell the studios ‘this movie’s not for us’.”
Meanwhile for Elba, who contracted Covid-19 last year, the global health crisis had a profound impact on him and his mindset during filming.
“The pandemic has shown that we’re all human and the race thing is pretty stupid,” he said. “Obviously, there’s systematic racism that sits in our system which is going to take time to get out, but in terms of storytelling, it’s a great day for us.
“It’s a great day for everyone.”
The 49-year-old actor noted his own personal battle with the virus helped him harness “compassion” in his portrayal of the dislikeable and brutal Buck.
“It really gave me a life-changing perspective. So I think I ended up injecting some of that maturity ... into that character,” Elba said. “We encouraged each other to get deeper, under the skin with these characters.”
Before hitting the small screen, “The Harder They Fall” got its cinematic unveiling at London’s Southbank Centre on Wednesday evening, with Jay-Z making an appearance on the red carpet to kickstart the 12-day film festival.
Now in its 65th year, it will close with “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, starring the Oscar-winning Frances McDormand, whose husband Joel Coen directs, and fellow Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.