Lovers Rock (2020)
Written Steve McQueen & Courttia Newland
Directed by Steve McQueen
I fell in love with director Steve McQueen’s work when I saw his first feature film, Hunger, a decade ago. The way he told the story of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who took part in a prisoner hunger strike and died standing up for his beliefs, was told beautifully. As someone who knew nothing about Bobby Sands beforehand, I was in tears during the beautiful final scene. McQueen hasn’t disappointed me since, and I consider every film he’s directed to be one of the best of that year’s releases. So, in 2020, a year that has been unconventional in every possible aspect, McQueen has done something unconventional with his filmmaking as well, releasing the Small Axe Anthology.
The Small Axe Anthology has been presented on television but also at film festivals as individual features. Each film’s lengths vary, and the plots are not interconnected, so I think it’s hard to nail down precisely what it is. For the purposes of my upcoming best films of 2020 list, I consider these movies, not television episodes. The one commonality among the stories is that they are stories of West Indian immigrants living in London in the 1960s and 1970s. Other than that, they vary wildly in tone and characters. Steve McQueen originally conceived this as a standard serialized story about recurring characters but had so many ideas he realized the project was more significant than that.
Lovers Rock is named after a style of reggae music with an emphasis on romance, which grew in popularity in London during the 1970s. The music contrasted itself from the Rastafari sound, overtly political, by commenting on relationships between lovers and not involving itself in larger social issues. It’s very reminiscent of American soul R & B music from the same period where the singer is often a lover trying to lure in a partner or lamenting the loss of one. This is appropriate as the film is about a reggae house party where two young people meet and share intimate moments.
Martha (Amarah-Jah St. Aubyn) and her friend Patty come to a house party in West London where they hope to dance, drink, and meet some guys. Also, Franklyn is a young mechanic looking for a woman to possibly begin something with. The two will end up together, but it’s not an easy path. The film is intentionally meandering, just as interested in the music as the people. This is a collection of small stories, of little triumphs and failures. They don’t really amount to much, but as is in life, we do so many things, but they don’t really change the world around in sweeping ways.
The purpose of Lovers Rock is to convey a feeling of this space at this time. We watch three women in the kitchen preparing stews and other food as the men clear out a front room and set up a DJ turntable and speakers. Men & women get ready, choosing the right outfits, and thinking about the potential for the evening. There are many characters here, and in the 68-minute runtime, we don’t go too deep with anyone, but McQueen can inform us of their complexity without exposition.
The rasta doorman never really gets a name in the story, but I know a lot about him in the way he deals with potential problems at the door. He eyes a group of ill-intended white boys mocking a black woman from down the street. There’s a simmering, controlled power in his eyes. You have the slick tailor, his clothing telling us about his high opinion of himself as he attempts to woo the ladies, and later we see him become predatory. There’s the birthday girl jealous of Martha, seeing her as trying to upstage who the spotlight should be on. These conflicts don’t have cut and dry resolutions, but they certainly have thematic ones.
This film has got me pretty excited to watch other Small Axe features. I think getting five Steve McQueen films in a single year is a gift, unlike any other. Since 2008, he’s only directed four movies, so this is an avalanche of greatness. I’m hoping we get a variety of tones & styles as he explores this period of life for the people he grew up amongst.