Lovers Rock finds respite and rapture in a Black London house party

The only fiction-based instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series revels in its communal escapism from the battles beyond.

26 October 2020

By Chrystel Oloukoï

Lovers Rock (2020)
Sight and Sound

► The Small Axe series begins broadcasting on BBC One on 15 November 2020 and will be available on BBC iPlayer; Lovers Rock is broadcast on 22 November.

Lovers Rock, which premiered earlier this month online at the London Film Festival before heading to BBC Two and HBO next month, is a 68-minute-long hypnotic immersion into a West Indian house party in Notting Hill, where we follow Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok).

In a directorial tour de force, for most of the film Steve McQueen holds us in the single central room where the party takes place, without making us feel cramped or claustrophobic. To the contrary, as bodies gyrate to the softened reggae sounds played by DJ Samson (Kadeem Ramsay), the room seems imbued with a kind of infinite spatial and temporal expansiveness. The revellers’ refusal to let Janet Kay’s 1979 hit Silly Games end, instead starting to sing it a cappella, is one such instance of musical rapture and outstretched time. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s drifting, lingering and wandering camerawork captures fleeting encounters and the thrill of the night as people move on and off the dance floor.

There isn’t much of a narrative. Events emerge like sudden eruptions on the baseline that is the intoxicating atmosphere of the house party, in a beautiful homage to the vibrant Black subculture of the London of the 1980s.

The house party feels like a world of its own, but we are also reminded of the fragility of this cosmos. Indeed the rest of the world seems tethered to the edges of the party, as the hallways and the bathrooms of the house, as well as the street outside, bring back stark reminders of a structurally racist context, as well as the vulnerability of Black women to sexual assault. If Lovers Rock is both electrifying and tender, it also includes more ominous tones – as in the furtive image of a Black modern Sisyphus dragging an enormous cross, seen from the window of the bus taking the girls to the party. The energy of the party soon catches us again, as night crawlers display their best movies to the tune of Jamaican vocalist Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting (1974).

Lovers Rock (2020)

Lovers Rock is part of the BBC-commissioned Small Axe series of five films documenting the lives, struggles and hopes of London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. As the only fiction-based instalment, Lovers Rock’s contagious joy and lack of narrative contrasts with the other episodes, addressing more directly historical instances of racial brutality and Black resistance. It comes after Mangrove, which told the true story of how a Notting Hill Trinidadian restaurant of the same name was targeted by the racist Metropolitan police, and how an entire community mobilised to defend it.

While Mangrove and Lovers Rock have contrasting tones, from resistance to police brutality on one side to the exhilaration of nightlife on the other, they both offer a deep interrogation of paradigmatic sites of Black life and survival. Indeed the two settings – a restaurant which also serves as a nightclub and an improvised house party which compensates for the lack of Black nightclubs – give a sense of the sites and temporalities of Black life in the city. In a context of global calls for abolition, both films affirm the extent to which the edge of the ‘small axe’ Bob Marley sang about is sharpened by these Black sites of refuge where otherwise worlds are imagined.

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