Following his 2018 prestige pulp thriller Widows, video artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen is presenting audiences with a project of considerably greater ambition: Small Axe, a miniseries (or perhaps anthology?) running on Amazon Prime Video. Not television, Small Axe is a quintet of like-minded movies ranging from lean to large—and its latest chapter, Lovers Rock, dropped on the streaming service last Sunday. A glance at its running time and subject matter suggest a work far removed from McQueen’s usual suffering-forward milieu: The film takes place during a single night, set at a house party in 1980s London. Sounds like fun on a bun!
It is. It isn’t. In her insightful Vulture review, critic Hunter Harris describes Lovers Rock as a snapshot of “what happens when white people aren’t looking.” The film primarily concerns itself with Black joy in secured spaces where Blackness is permitted to thrive sans interrogation and restriction by the whiteness lurking at its edges. McQueen has made a textured, warm, breathtaking and heartbreaking portrait of Black experience, condensed economically into slightly over an hour of runtime. It’s exhilarating. It’s gorgeous. It’s moving. It’s also dangerous. Whiteness doesn’t factor directly into McQueen’s plot through physical violence, but that and more structural violence towards Black livelihood is routinely implied: The party’s very existence is a reminder of its isolated necessity, and even the sight of a police car represents a threat to the event and its participants.
Lovers Rock begins as a company of young Black men and women make their respective preparations for the evening’s house party. Black people living in 1980s London were denied access to the city’s clubs, so they had to throw their own soirees where a couple pounds meant you could eat, drink, make merry, maybe make love, and jam all night without threat of violence from white outsiders. Ensuring that this party in particular makes good on the last promise is Jabba (Marcus Fraser), a downright Herculean doorman whom the door only just accommodates. No one gets in without his say so. Fortunately, most of the partygoers cover their admission and enjoy their good time.
One of these is McQueen’s chief protagonist, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), met absconding from her family’s apartment and meeting up with her best friend Patti (Shaniqua Okwok). The pair share a few fond japes about high heels before making their way to the shindig, where they, like all others attending, anticipate an evening of liberation from the white gaze. A chance to be themselves surrounded by people who look like them, celebrate like them, feel like them. But the festivities aren’t without pitfalls. Patti has moves put on her by a fellow whose game is steeped in misogyny. When Martha hits it off with Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Patti leaves in a jealous huff, prompting Martha to follow her out of the house, out of its safety, and onto streets that qualify as no man’s land. She’s immediately accosted by a gang of white boys who mock her with racist monkey chatter.
Thank goodness for Jabba, who runs them off with size alone. But in this brief moment, Lovers Rock harshly reminds viewers why the men and women at the party gather at all. Community is part of it. Necessity is another part, and shelter, too, but “shelter” doesn’t connote the absence of harm: Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), a swaggering lout operating on a “take what’s mine” philosophy, shows up wearing macho entitlement as an accessory, then persuades Cynthia (Ellis George) outside and nearly rapes her until Martha arrives with a broken bottle and no fear using it. It’s Cynthia’s birthday. This is her time. But even ensconced in four walls of protection, she’s still at risk of contact with brutal masculinity. Hers is one of the many micro-narratives McQueen weaves throughout Lovers Rock’s loom, each essential for the tapestry he has in mind. He and co-writer Courttia Newland create a complete labor. Neither Black identity nor Black experience are monoliths. Even male toxicity comes in all makes and models. Martha’s cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams Stirling) walks through the door carrying a family chip on his shoulder, but rather than project his demons onto others, he exorcises them through an unbridled, righteous, and emotional dance serving as the movie’s capstone.
Lovers Rock isn’t an anguish festival like McQueen’s Hunger or 12 Years a Slave. He backgrounds most of the script’s sharper edges. For most, it’s the Rock that will resonate, particularly in an instantly iconic sequence where Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” plays, quiets, and is sustained as the crowd continues singing the tune long after the speakers fall silent. Here McQueen grants the greatest reprieve from the oppressive forces the revelers mean to escape, a kind of collective unconscious response to the yearning, pain, and romance in Kay’s voice as she belts out the chorus’ highest notes. Lovers Rock is cinematic to the core, a movie built around tone and atmosphere conveyed through silky camerawork that, though presented on the small screen, feels big the way the best movies do. The film is multifaceted—encompassing the good, the bad, and the terrifying—but what ultimately prevails, in both memory and sensation, is the first.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Courttia Newland
Starring: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Shaniqua Okwok, Micheal Ward, Ellis George, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Kedar Williams Stirling, Kadeem Ramsay
Release Date: November 22, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.