Written and directed by Steve McQueen, co-written by Courttia Newland, a single evening at a house party in 1980s West London sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance and music. Starring: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Michael Ward, Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Francis Lovehall and Daniel Francis-Swaby.
A stark change of pace from the first of the SMALL AXE series, moving from an intense building drama to a very loose narrative, LOVERS ROCK (2020) is more one to experience than simply follow along with, it’s about the atmosphere rather than a larger plot. That’s not to say there isn’t a story to it at all, if you pay close attention to the details and the behaviors then you start to see where things are headed and it touches upon a number of different issues. McQueen’s filmography so far has been full of heavy material; hunger strikes, sex addiction, slavery, so this is something very different, to have a vibrant, fun energy and be full of dancing and romance, it’s very interesting to see him do something of this nature.
The energy of LOVERS ROCK is introduced immediately with its use of music and continues throughout, McQueen’s direction refuses to stay still, it wanders through the party, not just focusing on the key characters but everyone, to fully take in the passions and tensions. It creates this atmosphere as if the house is almost existing in its own little bubble, outside of the racism and discrimination that likely constantly laid in wait for them. Its tone explores the safe place the house party creates to allow this group of people to relax and enjoy themselves during a tumultuous time, as well as touching upon the different attitudes of that time period. Particularly the way in which it deals with sexual harassment, the second that these two young women arrive, they’re having to dodge men hitting on them left and right, while some may be harmless there are a couple that give a much more predatory persona. It balances genuine sexual attraction and romance with harassment, showing both sides of the culture of its time and the inherent dangers situations like this posed for women, and still do.
It’s definitely a film that feels more like an ensemble piece but if there were one stand out to pick among them it would undoubtedly be Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn. It’s St. Aubyn’s only credited film role to date which is incredibly surprising as she brings a great deal of personality and strength to her character, she’s confident and self-assured which makes her so easy to watch. It’s a shame that the strong chemistry and believable friendship that she builds with Shaniqua Okwokat the beginning of the film isn’t given a chance to continue throughout as she is only in the first 20-minutes or so then never reappears, which is slightly frustrating to not find out what happened to her. Ward gives a solid performance as Franklyn, he’s charming and smooth. Notable mentions have to go to Daniel Francis-Swaby, who impressively makes his character utterly detestable, and Ellis George who brings that classic female competitive edge, eyeing up the other women at the party to find out who she’s competing against for the most eligible bachelors but as the film winds on, she also brings a genuine depth to her.
LOVERS ROCK is a rare example of how Black communities in Britain created these safe havens to be able to have fun and relax without having to worry about the hordes of racists around every corner. It doesn’t completely ignore the issues of its day, there’s an undercurrent of politics, sex and harassment but it also doesn’t take over the film, which instead is a celebration of music and dance and the power it can hold to allow people to just let go of their worries, even for an evening. It’s a very different project from McQueen but it’s satisfying to see him change up his style slightly and inject this film with romance, color, vibrancy and a very well curated soundtrack.