SFFILM 2020: Ring Lights, Web Camera, Action!

The Awards Night’s first virtual red carpet looked little like a traditional step and repeat.

After nine months of social distancing and protesting, SFFILM Awards Night’s virtual red carpet night was reflective of the current national mood — alone together — as each of the evening’s guests made an “appearance” at the Dec. 9 online gathering, which serves as a fundraiser and celebration of film.

The 2020 honorees included actress Glenn Close for Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy; actors Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom, Jr. for Amazon’s One Night in Miami; writer-director Aaron Sorkin for Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7; and filmmaker Chloé Zhao for Searchlight Pictures’ Nomadland.  

The cast of Regina King’s One Night in Miami was recognized with the SFFILM Special Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance for their stellar acting in the silver-screen adaptation of Kemp Powers’ powerful play of historical fiction, premiering on Amazon on Jan. 15.

In the film, boxer Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) meet up in a Miami hotel room in 1964, following one of Ali’s fights, to discuss civil rights issues.  

All four actors had depicted important historical figures before but said that the opportunity to inhabit these real-life legends on the verge of achieving excellence was particularly tantalizing to them. 

“It was one big lottery to play Jim Brown in this particular timeframe, along with the message of the film,” says Hodge, who in 2016 portrayed both MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton and Levi Jackson in Hidden Figures. “The way this year turned out, this message will be heard and received more impactfully by an audience.”

Eli Goree says he never resonated with the icons he played in the past, like Olympic jumper Dave Albritton in the 2016 biopic Race, as much as he did with Ali.

“It was an honor to pay homage to someone who had an impact on my life in a major way,” says Goree.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, who recently shone as former president Barack Obama in Showtime’s political drama The Comey Rule, describes portraying Malcolm X as an entirely singular experience. 

“There’s only one Malcolm,” he says.  “So it’s a very rare, specific thrill to play such a terrific leader and bonafide intellectual who operated from such a center of conviction.”

Multiple-award-winning multi-hyphenate Leslie Odom, Jr., best known for his breakout role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, says that the opportunity to play Sam Cooke was as important to him as helping to spread the movie’s significant message.

“Like these men before us, we’ve earned the right to take up some space and tell our truth in all these rooms,” says Odom, Jr.

Guests at this year’s SFFILM Night joined the evening virtually. (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Academy-Award winning writer-director Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), the recipient of that night’s Kanbar Award for Storytelling, was also confident that the truths in his latest film, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, were important ones for audiences to hear.

Other than the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg, Sorkin initially jumped on the project about the seven activists on trial for inciting the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention because he realized that if he knew next to nothing about the subject then it was likely that many others knew little to nothing as well.

But then, once Trump started encouraging police brutality at his rallies, and the national protests against the Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd killings were met with nightsticks and tear gas, getting the film out to audiences became even more critical.    

“We thought the film was plenty relevant when we made it last winter,” says Sorkin. “We didn’t need it or wish for it to become more relevant, but it did.”  

Seven-time Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close, honored with the SFFILM Award for Acting, felt that it was important to shine a light on another lesser-known community — the backwoods folk that rarely receive media attention — in her latest movie, Hillbilly Elegy.

In Ron Howard’s book-to-screen biopic about a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) returning to his Appalachian-rooted family in Middletown, Ohio after his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) overdoses on heroin, Close plays Mamaw, the small-town dynamo, who stops at nothing to keep her family together. 

The acclaimed actress, barely recognizable as Bev’s mother, the matriarch of the family, says that in order to do justice to her character, she started with “a lot of careful work on the look” with the help of premier makeup artist Matthew Mungle before interviewing those that knew the Middletown legend best to gain a handle on her behaviors. 

“You’re trying to find the essence of who this person was — and that’s all there,” says Close. “That’s Mamaw.”

Close says that Howard took equal care to authentically capture the backcountry community that Mamaw inhabited — warts and all — so that audiences might empathize with their particular employment and mental health struggles. 

“These groups of people are the forgotten people and we don’t understand how much despair they might feel,” says Close. “So, I considered it a privilege to explore Mamaw and what she ultimately was for that family.” 

With Nomadland, scheduled for a theatrical release on Feb. 19, 2021, Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider), recipient of the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction, also wanted to make a film about a little-understood population — the baby boomers who became nomads after losing their factory jobs in the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

“When you lose everything at the twilight of your life that defined who you were, how do you restart and what does that mean?” says Zhao. 

In the neo-realist film, based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Fern (Frances McDormand) sets off on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling nomad after losing her job and husband. 

Zhao hopes that the personal apocalypses that each of the characters faces in the film will hopefully resonate with viewers battling their own brave new worlds this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fern was part of a community, had a job, and had a husband — and when it’s stripped away, it’s quite painful and scary,” says Zhao. “Maybe we all are questioning if the realities of our lives are no longer and realize that nothing will be the same again. But I think, little by little, we can build a new reality for ourselves.”

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