Idris Elba is undeniably the star of Will Packer’s latest movie, “Beast,” but the family story at the heart of Universal’s release was a big draw for the producer who previously shepherded “Girls Trip.” In the movie, debuting in theaters Aug. 19, Elba plays Nate Samuels, a recently widowed doctor who returns to South Africa with his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) and must fight to survive from a man-hunting lion.
Packer sought to offer a balance for the late summer movie calendar. “I loved the idea that it just happens to be a Black family in peril,” he says. “It’s not just about man versus beast – it’s a man protecting his daughters. It’s universal in those themes.”
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Under his banner company of Will Packer Productions, “Beast” is another notch on the mogul’s belt for amplifying Black women as demonstrated by his past features such as “Girls Trip” (2017) with Tiffany Haddish and “The Photograph” (2020) with Issa Rae, both distributed Universal.
The sisters are stricken by paralyzing fear of the carnivore’s relentless pursuit in the movie. Halley portrays Meredith, a college-bound photographer that harbors resentment toward her father for separating from her mother prior to her death, while Jeffries is Norah, a sweet and curious girl unafraid to stand up to her big sister or stab a lion that’s trying to get under their cliff-dangling vehicle.
“We’re both brown skinned, dark-skinned girls and we’re leading a movie, and it’s not anything that’s degrading,” Halley says.
Jeffries, who also has a major role as the daughter of a Greek goddess in the upcoming Disney+ adaptation of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” revels in the opportunity to play diverse roles. “I want to see more Black girls get parts that aren’t just the sassy [friend] or live in the hood,” she says. “I want to see them smart and the number one lead.”
For Elba, this was a departure from dramatically complex characters like his SAG Award winning role in “Beasts of No Nation,” a 2015 Netflix movie also set on the continent. “This felt different just because of its environment, being out quite literally in the wilderness of South Africa,” Elba says. “We had this huge, beautiful lens that shows the dynamic of South Africa in its glory, and we as a film crew got to run around it.”
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
From the opening scene, “Beast” establishes itself as an edge-of-your-seat thriller, riddled with jump scares and impressive visual creations of a blood-thirsty and vengeful lion. By the end credits, you’ve sat through a new age blend of the Liam Neeson survival flick “The Grey” (2011) meets the Michael Douglas-Val Kilmer thriller “The Ghost and the Darkness” (1996). Not a bad way to spend 93 minutes.
For director Baltasar Kormákur, it’s another film in his man versus nature canon after “Everest” and “The Deep,” focusing on keeping the view of the lion. “The lion is always seen from the perspective of the characters,” Kormákur says. “You always feel it coming to them.
Packer, last in the spotlight as a producer of the Academy Awards, is still proud of the event despite the infamous slap by Will Smith. Packer received an Emmy nom for outstanding variety series (live) saying, “it said to me that people were able to evaluate the show on the substance of the content, and not just one moment that was unfortunate for everybody involved.”
Packer also revels in the chance to shepherd another movie with strong female roles with items like the sequel to “Girls Trip” on the horizon. Says the producer: “When you look across the spectrum of Hollywood storytelling, the most disenfranchised are Black women.”
Written by Ryan Engle and Jaime Primak Sullivan, “Beast” also stars Sharlto Copley. Along with Packer and Kormákur, the film is also produced by James Lopez.
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