‘Small Axe’ is an anthology comprised of five original films directed by Steve McQueen and set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, telling personal stories from London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. This title is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” later popularized by Bob Marley & the Wailers.
Building off of reggae, lovers rock is a style of that Rastafarian sound putting greater emphasis on R&B and soul. Love themes came out of this music, which was largely popular in London in the 1970s. “Lovers Rock” is also the second installment of Small Axe, which is set during a Blues party in 1980, focusing on the black youths who were unwelcome in white nightclubs. It’s another terrific entry in this anthology series, serving as an interesting change-up in tone, compared to “Mangrove,” yet continuing to prove the series’ worth when it comes to a display of pride in one’s culture.
While incorporating multiple characters who feature throughout the 70-minute episode, the focus is largely on Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jah St. Aubyn), who sets out to spend her night at this Blues party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). Sneaking away from home and arriving on the scene, while we see one man breaking open a payphone to find the money needed for the door fee, the ladies walk right in.
What follows is an ongoing feeling of freedom for these partygoers, as any sense of plotting takes a backseat to a camera flowing through the crowds, observing conversations and dancing. At the same time, the DJ holds court, playing various lovers rock tunes to spirited individuals. The one major development comes from Franklyn’s (Michael Ward) introduction, who shares an immediate connection with Martha, leading to the two dancing together for much of the evening.
There are many films set during one long night at a party. Separating “Lovers Rock” from generational favorites such as House Party or Dazed and Confused is the choice to hold off on incorporating major character arcs or any real change to the dynamic of the evening, outside of the sort of love connection that would realistically take place at a party. “Lovers Rock” is far more content to watch the natural progression of things. There’s no worry of cops busting in, big fights, or music-stopping declarations. This portion of the anthology is about finding joy.
Something I very much enjoy even more than characters bursting into song and dance is a film that’s content with letting an extended sequence of music play, while characters let themselves have fun in the moment, dancing and singing along to the beat. “Lovers Rock” spends over half its runtime delivering on this. One hypnotic moment comes from a five-minute sequence where a jam-packed room sings an a capella rendition of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” after the song has ended. The camera makes an occasional cut to different parts of the room but largely just lingers on these individuals letting nothing stop them from having this moment.
After seeing moments of people dancing and having a good time in “Mangrove,” before true challenges forced them into a different direction, it’s comforting to see director Steve McQueen find a different groove for “Lovers Rock.” This is the same filmmaker, and there’s little separating his style when filming an intense courtroom drama or a party. He captures the atmosphere. The look and feel are reflected well in the style of dress, the environment, and the attitudes on display. For all of the dancing, this is a good reminder of what parties like this once were. McQueen knows how to capture the romantic vibes between partners moving in tandem while never crossing unacceptable lines.
If there’s one common theme, it’s the constant threat of various spoiling the fun for the women. For Martha and Patti, along with the other women at the party, the goal is not to find some man to leave with. They’d rather have their fun in their own way, such as engaging with the glee Martha has to dance and show off martial arts moves, while Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” plays on the soundtrack.
Still, every so often, a scene features some random partying dude trying to woo over one of the women. While Franklyn is the one with a clear kindness shining through, it’s not so much the case with the others. The way this element comes to a head has the chance to turn things in a different direction, but McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland resist the urge to increase dramatic tension, instead choosing to move on and continue highlighting the more positive elements of this small corner of the universe.
Not being caught up in dramatized presentations of true moments in British history, “Lovers Rock” has the feel of a wondrous slice of life that could practically be seen as a form of mythology. Yes, these Caribbean people made the best out of an environment that tried to push them away, but thanks to some ingenuity and a moving sense of spirit, carving out an underground space to reach peak moments of happiness led to rooms full of people who could share these stories of silly games and black pride.