‘Lovers Rock’: Review of Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ film series

Chances are anyone would recommend Steve McQueen lovers’ rock — the second chapter of his in progress small ax film series, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video – went out of its way to mention this scene. The moment in question, set on “Silly Games” by Janet Kay, is indeed a coup de theater: improvised and free, the kind of moment when the bright screen separating a film from its audience suddenly seems malleable, porous. All of a sudden, you’re not watching a movie anymore, but a part of it. Your body moves alongside those on screen, even if you’re sitting still. You hit the high notes as they are, even if they are silent; you smile amazed, like everyone else, at the woman who really striking these notes, who got lost there. And you see all of this happening in images that call out to you, images that beautifully encapsulate the feeling of getting lost, of surrendering, of radiant sounds and common feelings.

It’s liberating – liberating in a way that followers of McQueen’s film have worked so far (the IRA drama Hunger, with its poop-streaked prison walls; the oscar winner 12 years of slavery, with its climactic gutting of an enslaved black woman’s body; etc.) may surprise this filmmaker. Perhaps that’s just one of the reasons the movie feels so refreshing. It is not without obscurity: it is powerfully, subtly attuned to the dynamics between and among men and women, in particular. This scene from “Silly Games”, which also doubles as the romantic centerpiece between two of the film’s main characters, has a surprising tail – an encroachment of male violence that had been hinted at throughout and with which we learn our heroine , Martha (a lovely Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), is painfully familiar. But even that, woven into the fabric of the film, resists the abjection some of us expect of McQueen’s work. “Come to my side, sis”: This is the line that seals this door, only for new ones – new invigorations, new glimpses of life – to arise in its place.

All of this is in keeping with McQueen’s particular mission in small ax – even though lovers’ rock stands out in part for adhering less tightly to direct storytelling than the other films here. The five movies small ax is McQueen’s attempt to delve into glimpses of black British life from the 1960s to the 1980s. Modeled in part on the memories and experiences of its director, the film focuses specifically on West Indian immigrants and their children. And it shrewdly, sometimes even polemically, picks up on everything that accompanies this territory: police violence and the uprisings that flow from it, the music, the food and the rituals of everyday life, the dominant attempts by black immigrants to make themselves spaces – and to hold onto and protect those spaces – in a country whose hostilities have been imprinted on them not only by their neighbors, but by the highest powers in the country.

You can feel this power in lovers’ rock though this is a film that overall pushes those forces to the fringes and brings black immigrant life itself, black youth, music and soul, to the fore. You may hear the film being described as a 70-minute dance party, and while not incorrect, that one-line summary is incomplete. Blues parties of the kind McQueen recreates here were provocative alternatives to the black club scene which, thanks to the government-mandated black club closures in the early 80s, suddenly withered. And so it’s a party that arrives with a weighty backdrop that, without even detailing the on-screen political circumstances, McQueen infuses into the film’s tones and liberties.

Or Mangrove, small axThe opening issue of , detailed the ensuing police attacks and uprisings around the famous Mangrove restaurant – a West Indian mecca in London’s Notting Hill – lovers’ rockAttention is strictly directed to the space itself. It’s like McQueen telling the story of the Mangrove restaurant and the “Mangrove 9”, which were taken to court for trying to defend him, but without the sound of a specific historical incident to capture, and without the cases bloody noise needed to detail this noise. There is no trial in lovers’ rock. The cops are, but for one shot of the film, reduced to the brash irony of DJ sounds. There is resistance — these parties were acts of resistance — but no uprising. No “politics” in the way we so often seem, with extremely limited imagination, to define that term.

And even. Much of that politics is there from the very beginning of the movie, with its lush and loving take on the ongoing preparations for the upcoming party. Animators set up stereos, women in the kitchen give us our first spontaneous glimpse of “Silly Games”, the sounds and sights of curry cooking, a sofa moved to make way for a dance floor, early flirtations and a quick look at the white resident neighbors that encapsulate the film’s historic moment.

It’s an opening that, like the “Silly Games” sequence – and like the equally invigorating “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence that follows that one – captures much of what the film’s remaining hour will accomplish. Parcel? Of course, there is a sparkle. And it’s, overall, rooted in Martha, sneaking off to attend this party with a friend; meets the charming and sensitive Franklyn (Michael Ward) and gradually synchronizes with him, physically and emotionally, as the night progresses; and navigates the usual thorns of a night out – losing track of her friend, warding off the unwanted attentions of aggressive men, etc. Other things happen too, spices that add headiness to the vibrant but subtle tensions of the night, like the arrival of a young Rasta, the cousin of Martha Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling), or the setbacks of the young woman Cynthia (Ellis George).

For a movie that so often seems plotless — and far more evocative for him — lovers’ rock is heavy with events and strands of story that follow one another and follow one another. The center, always, is the dance floor. And McQueen (working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner for all five films) makes a point of delivering the grandeur of all the feelings his film evokes – the lusts, the jealousies, the pleasures, the violence – through thumbnails. I think back to that movie, and I think of hands clutching asses or thrown over lovers’ shoulders, of stray joints lining a coat, of the way the light from a lightbulb hanging from a DJ’s neck strikes the turntable, to the way the party at one point gets so hot that even the walls start to sweat. I also think of the abundance of holy crosses – and how the religion of an immigrant generation, imprinted on their British-born children, stands as both a safety net and a rebuke to ungodly marriages of music, sex, bodily freedom.

The movie feels like a miracle at times, especially for what it doesn’t do. McQueen’s ability to render a universe of incident and emotion from granular detail, sounds and sights that feel specific and fully lived, should come as no surprise to us at this point in his career. He is a director whose work has long demonstrated a fascinating ability and eagerness to show the power of dramatic tangents and bizarre effects of sound and image. He also has a habit of announcing policies that were already obvious: that flashback to the murder of a cop, in widows, in which the murder of a black boy is visually supported by a row of Obama posters, comes to mind.

But when the man is on something, he is on. I keep thinking back to that surprising suspension scene from 12 years of slavery, in which the hero’s struggle against a noose – his tiptoe stance to stay alive – stretches uncomfortably, becomes bulbous and unseemly and all the more terrifyingly realistic for not adjusting to comfort public. I’ve never been able to reconcile the intentions of this scene with the museum-worthy perfection and portrayal of the long take in which it takes place. But the intentions rang loud and clear, and they came to mind as I watched the dance scenes lovers’ rock, with their similar spread and emphatic resistance to easy and quick gratification that you’ll find in most other films. When McQueen draws a scene beyond what you expect to be his limits, be careful. When “Kunta Kinte Dub” starts to explode and the party erupts with near-Pentecostal fervor, watch out. What do we see? With minimal dialogue and maximum attention, McQueen and his collaborators tell whole stories between people – and between the people on screen and their British circumstances by and large, which this movie only lacks if you literally watch it. The freedom of the men falling to the ground, the convulsions of pleasure and anger that come over them when this song comes on, tells me as much as most scenes involving the police, without ever needing to summon the police.

It is lovers’ rock after all, named after that strain of reggae rooted in the romance of slow hips and dark rhythm. The soundtrack is, accordingly and unsurprisingly, a winner – but the film does more than make the most of its soundtrack. Nor is it the outright nostalgia that McQueen seems to have in mind. Something of a narrative arc envelops this film, makes us long for the romances to come, the lives to be lived. But we don’t even need to see what happens next: lovers’ rock lives in the spirit far beyond its actual end. It’s a time and change spent in the company of black immigrants doing the rich, complicated, and too long undescribed work of living on their own terms. There are no clear cut conclusions. Even if there were, the film dug up too much, saw too much, and felt too much for us to need.

Andrea G. Henderson