How many Black stories have been left untold? How often have Black filmmakers only gotten funding to explore the darkest chasms of despair, or the inspirational sermons of overcoming adversity, with little space devoted to the entire universe of storytelling that exists between the two? Steve McQueen has made an effort to change that, with his anthology series Small Axe which focuses on overlooked Black narratives. The first piece in his series, Lovers Rock, is a lyrical, emotive glimpse at the hidden world of West Indian house parties in the 1980s, one that entrances the viewer as it pulls back the curtain.
Lovers Rock luxuriates in the near-forgotten rituals of the house party. Within one apartment that has been carefully stripped of its furniture, a sanctuary space is created in East London for the West Indian community. This sense of security cannot be overstated amidst the growing racial tensions of Thatcher’s England. It’s a micro-society with its own rules, structures, and physical communication. We are privy to the anticipation of a fun night out during the lead-up period, as makeup is carefully applied, food is prepared, and music is selected. Girls in their best dresses excitedly dance with each other to the latest pop hits in the middle of the room, while the boys linger against the wall with an appraising eye, determining who they’re going to try to pursue. Some glare resentfully at newcomers, outsiders who have effortlessly slid into the role of competition for attention. And as the night goes on, the men get drunker and more aggressive, dominating the space more overtly. The music switches over to more masculine drumming, and the dancing becomes more frenzied as the party nears its inevitable end. At some point, they will all have to go back to their normal lives, where they’re maybe the only Black person in the room, and they have to be cognizant of constantly adjusting their accents to suit everyone else. But not yet.
Our two many characters (although there are many that the camera seems interested in, picking up their experiences over the course of the night in fits and starts) are Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward). They’ve just met at this house party, they hit it off, and despite Martha’s seeming desire to keep the men, she encounters at arm’s length, who are mostly prowling around looking for a late-night conquest. They stick together throughout the party, getting to know each other better, and sharing a few moments of intimacy on the dance floor. It’s merely the beginning of what could grow into a more substantial relationship, but it’s a lovely beginning.
Its greatest success is in how well it captures the natural rhythms of one single night, from multiple different perspectives. It’s not dialogue-heavy or narratively complex, by any means: Lovers Rock is far more interested in cultivating a warm, engaging vibe through music. And the way that McQueen allows his camera to linger on different people at the party, sweeping broad circles across the room, makes the viewer hyper-aware of the interpersonal dynamics that are constantly being built and evaluated throughout. You learn so much about the characters from their body language, minor physical adjustments, and the way that they negotiate the space. This feels like the kind of film that you could watch over and over again, focusing on a different background couple each time, and have an equally satisfying cinematic experience.
Lovers Rock doesn’t seem particularly interested in what will happen in the future for any of its characters: it’s firmly rooted in the present. And it may not seem striking or ground-breaking for this to be a simple, slice-of-life narrative, but in a lot of ways, it is. So often, films about Black experiences are under pressure to be huge, meaningful behemoths full of racial/social commentary. They are rarely allowed to show regular people living unremarkable lives on screen the way that their white counterparts are often able to. This, then, is a celebration of Black life and community, one that is vibrant and intimate and entirely compelling.