Lovers Rock is Steve McQueen’s ode to youth and music, to love and culture. In this all-encompassing sensory experience, McQueen invites us to bear witness to Black joy in its most raw and authentic form. We’re transported to an era in London in which many of the safe spaces occupied by the West Indian community were largely invite-only, regulated by sound systems and MCs. Against this backdrop, McQueen directs a blossoming love story, rich in both sensuality and innocence. 

The film follows Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward) as they meet for the first time at a house party, under the moonlight of 1980s Ladbroke Grove. Following an initially awkward encounter, we observe them fall for one another as they laugh and dance, moving with a youthful exuberance to a soundtrack of reggae, dub and lovers rock – the Black British subgenre of reggae, characterised by its soulful and romantic sound.

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This is the first fictional story within McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, a series of films he’s made for BBC1 that centre around the West Indian community in London between the 1960s and 1980s. It’s clearly born from a place of fond familiarity. A sense of authenticity underpins the film, no doubt because it is co-written by McQueen and Courttia Newland – 2 Black Brits, both with Caribbean heritage, whose formative years were during this era. The sweat-laden, smoke-filled party atmosphere, within which most of the story occurs, is an environment they evidently know well and one that they pay close attention to. No detail is missed, either in the production or the costume design.

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Lovers Rock (2020)

 
This is reinforced by strong casting choices. McQueen has described this film as a Cinderella story, and in her debut performance St. Aubyn is a fitting princess. Her portrayal of a young woman balancing the expectations of family and religion with her own youthful desires (and, of course, a curfew) is filled with sensitivity and nuance. Meanwhile, Ward is wholly believable as our young prince – effortless and alluring with his words and with a sharp sense of style.
 
McQueen uses a roaming, handheld camera to ensure the specifics of this aspect of Black British culture are not missed. It tracks the fingers that assemble the sound system and the cables that give it life. It follows the hands of young men reaching for the elbows of young women, the customary ritual before engaging in a dance. It moves among the crowds on the dance floor, almost swaying in unison with the hips of its subjects. The choreography of the camera movement is carefully in time with the choreography of the cast, as cinematographer Shabier Kirchner pauses on the expressions and movements of the bodies that occupy this sacred space.
 
It’s within these feverish set pieces that the film flourishes. Like the house party itself, Lovers Rock is a film that’s largely governed by its music. As the vibrations emitted from the speakers change, so does the mood. The nonchalance of reggae is replaced by the sexual tension of lovers rock, as we witness young adults gradually lose their inhibitions. Similarly, the chaotic energy of dub sends the partygoers into a trance-like frenzy, wailing and moving to the electronic beat, complete with gun fingers raised high – the esoteric symbol of both appreciation and disbelief.
 
McQueen has said that these sequences were largely unscripted, including the a cappella rendition of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, which is sure to give you goosebumps. This is a testament to McQueen as a director, as he seemingly created an on-set environment comfortable enough for the cast to truly express themselves, to truly embody the music.

Lovers Rock is not as outwardly political as the other films in McQueen’s anthology, or in his wider work. Much of the racism displayed on screen is less overt. Franklyn’s boss refers to him as “boy” and claims to not be able to see him in the dark, for example. However, the impending doom of racial violence or police brutality is never far. Martha is subject to monkey chants almost immediately after leaving the security of the party, and the police ominously patrol by the house, looking for any excuse to heavy-handedly intervene. 

Yet, it is inherently political for one reason: its depiction of euphoria and self-expression within this marginalised West Indian community. Within an age in which our social media feeds are filled with images of the destruction of Black bodies, a film like Lovers Rock feels contemporary in its importance, like an act of defiance.

  • Lovers Rock airs on BBC1 on 22 November. It screened at the 64th BFI London Film Festival

About the LFF Critics Mentorship Programme

Acknowledging a lack of diversity in film criticism the London Film Festival Critics Mentorship programme gives meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers to hone their craft and gain new contacts by being immersed in the film festival. Now in its third year, the 2020 programme was offered exclusively to 6 up-and-coming Black writers who were mentored by Akua Gyamfi, journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, and film critic, journalist and screenwriter Kate Muir.

The mentees spent the 5 days of the mentorship programme making the most of this year’s hybrid festival experience, watching films virtually as well as meeting IRL to watch Mangrove at BFI Southbank on opening night, learning from their mentors and each other. They workshopped reviews in various styles, including for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine and a podcast review.
 
As well as accessing the festival Screen Talks and industry events programme, they heard from leading names from the industry with a series of Zoom chats including with Steve McQueen and Kemp Powers, and UK film critics Mark Kermode, Baz Bamigboye, Anna Smith, Ashanti Omkar and Amon Warmann. They also spoke to Ebony Amoroso, Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Endeavor, attended a ‘meet the LFF festival programmers’ session led by Festival Director Tricia Tuttle, and met Ulrich Schrauth, the new programmer for the immersive and XR strand LFF Expanded, at BFI Southbank.
  
Each mentee was individually paired with a mentor from the LFF’s media partners (Evening Standard, Empire, Little White Lies , Screen Daily, Sight & Sound, Time Out), to give them insight into criticism and film writing for their outlet and giving them support to produce a number of articles from the festival.

“I’m impressed and inspired,” comments lead mentor Akua Gyamfi. ”It’s been an honour and a real pleasure to co-mentor this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship group with Kate. The young writers we chose exceeded expectation and are all testament to the brilliance of this scheme and how rich the critical world could be if it opened its doors to new and diverse writers.”
 
Lead mentor Kate Muir adds: “Meet the future of film criticism. I loved working with our emerging critics who were the real heroes of this year’s virtual London Film Festival.”

Originally published: 18 November 2020