Steve McQueen’s ‘Lovers Rock’ Is a Sumptuous Display of Black Joy
Black joy undoubtedly exists. The diaspora would never have survived all that has been thrust upon it without these moments of levity. However, throughout the history of cinema, studios and filmmakers have made very little room for Black love, romance, lust, and sensuality. It is only in recent years following the twenty-year drought that existed between films like Love & Basketball, Love Jones, and even The Best Man that Black love has reemerged in cinema. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock has solidified itself in this new emergence of Black passion, seen in recent films like Queen & Slim and The Photograph.
Set in London in 1980, Lovers Rock follows a group of young people as they descend on a house party to celebrate Cynthia’s (Ellis George) 17th birthday. Having enlisted her West Indian family’s help, we watch Cynthia’s mother and aunties working in the kitchen, preparing pots of curry goat and ackee and saltfish to sell. They take time to sway their rounded hips and sing-along to the radio between the chopping and stirring.
‘Lovers Rock’ depicts one night of freedom
These dishes from their motherland will be sold later along with Red Stripes and soda, to party guests. As her family sets up for her big celebration, pushing the living room furniture into a bedroom and placing the plastic-wrapped couch in the backyard, Cynthia indulges in the ritual of getting ready. Her red dress hangs invitingly on the back of her bedroom door, as her close friend presses her hair out perfectly, sure to be sweated out by the night’s end.
Elsewhere in London, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) slides down her drainpipe, escaping her deeply religious family for an evening of freedom and youthful frivolity. With her best friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) in tow, Martha just wants to dance. She isn’t looking for male attention. In fact, at the beginning of the evening, as she joyfully rocks with Patty to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” an unknowing recipient of Cynthia’s envious gaze, she rebuffs any man that approaches her.
‘Lovers Rock’ depicts a haven for young Black Londoners
On man, Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) is handsy and aggressive, ringing alarm bells, almost as soon as the camera centers him in the frame. Much to Patty and Cynthia’s chagrin, Martha doesn’t expect to find herself pulled toward, Franklyn (Top Boy’s Micheal Ward) a smooth-talking stranger, dripped in confidence and sensuality. As the night burns on, the brown-hued couple is drawn to each other like magnets.
For one evening, McQueen’s leisurely exploration of a house party some 40 years in the past unfolds in all of its exquisite detail and nuance. It’s a portrait of a haven for Black people (though not entirely safe for Black women) who weren’t welcomed in the London night club scene. Instead, they are content to be hidden away from the outside world. They gleefully indulge in reggae music and rhythmic dancing, insulated from racism and the cloak of otherness.
‘Lovers Rock’ is about Black joy
There is little dialogue in Love Rock, which makes it all the more captivating. Instead, we watch fabrics swing in the air, and long lusty kisses tucked away in corners, the billowy clouds of cigarette smoke flow amid the instant attraction that unwittingly draws Martha toward Franklyn.
Lovers Rock is a part of McQueen’s anthology television series Small Axe — a five-film series that chronicles the West Indian community’s personal stories in London. It sweeps from the 1960s into the 1980s. To start here, with Janet Kay’s lush “Silly Games” as a bedrock in the film, is a celebration.
The film doesn’t skirt away from some of life’s harsh realities about Black women’s vulnerability in public spaces, mental health, self-acceptance, and true freedom. Still, Lovers Rock is a sumptuous display of indulgent Black jubilation lasting through the night and into the wee hours of the morning.
Lovers Rock was screened for the 2020 New York Film Festival.