This film takes place over the course of one reggae-fuelled night at a west London house in 1980. You see all the prep beforehand: moving the living room sofa into the garden, wiring up the turntable and speakers, cooking an array of Caribbean dishes. A bouncer stands tall at the door, taking 50p entry fees. Certain characters drift in and out, like a hazy Robert Altman movie.
Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn). Photo: BBC
Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) shuffles down the drainpipe of her Christian household to attend the party, and flirts with the charming Franklyn (Micheal Ward) while she’s there. Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling) breaks into a phone box to steal change for the admission fee. Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), clearly loving his afro and hat and pricey white suit, is a preying presence: following women to the bathroom, turning lairy when he’s left unrewarded.
But McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland prefer to move away from them and just enjoy the party. The camera mingles among the dancing couples and singletons and potential one-night stands, absorbing the pounding music of Janet Kay, Sister Sledge, and Carl Douglas.
Male fingers pull female arms, gently, to join them on the dancefloor, always with the possibility of something closer. These hands, many in foreplay mode, travel across different parts of the body – mostly men clasping arses. It’s poetic and absorbing, to a point. The Third Day came to mind because these dance scenes play like an immersive theatre event. But as with many parties, it’s hard not to look at the time.
Parker B (Alexander Blake) and Samson (Kadeem Ramsay). Photo: BBC
It’s a struggle to write this and not appear like a grumpy old man in a pompous millennial’s body, especially considering the overwhelming praise for Lovers Rock. With its many four- and five-star reviews, this critic feels like that loser wallflower who’d rather be anywhere else – steering clear of the sweaty, smoky ravers as they dance to music that's just too loud (what would the neighbours think?).
At the same time, the party exists in a beautiful vacuum, a respite from the cruel world outside. There’s not a single white face among the guests. Instead, they're hanging out on the road nearby, wearing suspicious frowns or rape-y smiles.
Mangrove, the first Small Axe film, spills over with violent and systemic racism. The racism in Lovers Rock, on the contrary, is on the edge of the party-goers’ enjoyment. It stares at them from afar. It’s like McQueen is trying to capture that race-specific feeling – incomprehensible to those of us with white privilege – of never being entirely comfortable, of knowing a threat is close, but having fun regardless.
Yet in focusing too hard on this west London escape, scented with weed and alcohol, most of the individual characters and their conflicts fall to the side and not a lot happens. Lovers Rock is well-dressed and colourful, and the music creates a tempting, visual rhythm. But after a while, you can have too much of nothing at all.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2020. Lovers Rock is showing in cinemas for LFF on Sunday 18 October. It airs on BBC One and iPlayer in November.
|Small Axe: Lovers Rock, BBC review
On 18 Oct 20, LFF RELEASE
22 Nov 20 – 22 Nov 21, ON BBC ONE
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