Lovers Rock finds a sanctuary for Black love

A Black British house party becomes a haven in the second film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection, a film that celebrates the reliefs of kinship and intimacy.

20 November 2020

By Nadine Deller

Lovers Rock (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Lovers Rock broadcasts on BBC One and iPlayer from 15 November 2020 and streams on Amazon Prime in the US.

Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock – one of five films in his Small Axe anthology – is an undeniable triumph, in which the milieu of a 1980s house party in West London is beautifully rendered with a realism that affirms the significance of Black lives. A study in Black joy, it submerges the audience in an alcohol- and weed-fuelled, sweat-soaked snapshot, against the backdrop of Thatcher’s London, of a Black Britain where love, music and dance reign.

The heart of the story is the meeting of two young lovers, Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), as they attend an incredible all-nighter on Ladbroke Road. Bursts of tension interweave the riotous party when Martha’s cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling) crashes the event, and a young woman Cynthia (Ellis George) is assaulted by Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), who is searching for a sexual partner.

McQueen is expert at immersing audiences in his characters’ experiences; as the camera follows bodies moving across the dancefloor, men and women holding each other close, hips swaying to the rhythm of reggae, he creates a sense of blissful communion. The film is a celebration of Blackness; each and every detail is perfectly pitched – the kitsch wallpaper in hues of green, the simple ritual of Cynthia straightening her afro hair with a hot iron, the cooking of curried goat – and made me feel as though the house itself were welcoming me to join the dance. The intimacy with which the camera lingers on a couple’s embrace, the energetic writhing of men dancing, or the minutiae of silent communication through dance and body language is reminiscent of certain sequences in Shame (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). In Lovers Rock, however, the focus is not on trauma; instead, McQueen gazes on in wonder, and marvels at the ordinary, everyday Black experience.

Saffron Coomber as Grace and Jermaine Freeman as Skinner

One scene of particular brilliance involves a long take of a heaving dancefloor, the DJ playing Janet Kay’s 1979 hit Silly Games. The crowd knows the song word for word, and after it ends, there is a communal a capella. The shuffling of feet and swinging of arms become graceful, balletic, and the camera’s close attention pulls the viewer into this world, to experience it through the Black gaze. As Kay’s honeyed tones are replaced by those of the dancing crowd – eyes closed and smiles beaming – it feels as though one is in the room. The immense house, where most of the drama occurs, is a haven: as the party develops, it is clear that beyond its walls the threat of violence is never far off. However, McQueen is not afraid to critique Black patriarchy here, as sexual assault creeps into the frame. Both joyful and at times sinister, the raucous and adrenaline-fuelled celebration in Lovers Rock depicts a microcosm of different Black lives in Britain’s past.

The focal point though, is Martha and Franklyn’s instant magnetism, which develops into an all-night romance as they dance and converse. Through their storyline, McQueen shows us a life-like, yet magical, relationship between two young people. It is uncommon to see such an accurate depiction of conversations in patois, which highlight the sense of significance and community in finding one’s kindred. In one striking scene, when the two lovers are interrupted as they retreat to his workplace, Franklyn’s speech slips from his usual musical, almost Shakespearean patois into a cockneyfied accent to appease his white boss. This may sound mundane – in a way it is – but it emphasises how exceptional this film is, making my heart swell with joy, recognition, and sadness. It arrives at a high point, the vivacity of the house party giving way to an oasis of calm.

One sequence in particular endures, a morning bike ride that becomes an emblem of bliss and sanctuary in a divided city. In this lovely film, Steve McQueen proudly declares that Black love rocks.

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