In the second release from the Small Axe compilation, Lovers Rock, McQueen abandons a heavily plot-driven production and instead leans into the slice-of-life sensibilities to create a stunning evocation of a Saturday Blues Night. Set almost entirely at a party for the duration of a night, Lovers Rock weaves together the multiple themes and stories of West Indians in London, as told by a vibrant house party.
The thread that holds them together, a budding romance between a young Martha and Franklyn. With the DJ selection of reggae love songs providing concert to their night together, the couple recreate the quiet excitement of a romance at its infancy. The sheepish enquiry of one’s details, the mundane where are you from-what do you do routine that is made excitable by the night’s possibilities, the feeling that even in a room full of other people, the two of you are the only thing that matters. The camera lingering on their perfectly lit bodies in sync as they wine their waists, her arm strewn across his shoulder while his caresses the small of her back, the space between them fragilely holding on to the tension; McQueen renders us transfixed.
Everyone around them is equally spellbound by this expertly curated soundtrack, punctuated by the DJ’s patois in between the changing vinyl records. The music is a character in this living painting; not only does it mark the temporal trajectory of the night, it serves as the undercurrent to this otherwise plotless piece. So when the party flows from one reggae sub-genre to another, before landing at the heavy bass line of Kunta Kinte by The Revolutionaries, the crowd’s response of manic dancing and stomping at the floorboards naturally signifies the anger and resentment with their treatment by the state.
There are a few other much less figurative instances of this ill treatment of British West Indians. The gang of white men who taunt Martha when she storms after her friend Patty; the police siren that ominously circles the party venue; and the loaded language we hear from Franklyn’s boss at the shop, after he is told off for bringing Martha over. McQueen makes it a point to dispel the myth that racism in Britain is less visceral, instead of intimately ingrained into the nation’s fabric. There is also the painfully familiar violence inflicted on Cynthia, the birthday girl who is sexually assaulted. The horror of this act is further realized by the assaulter's return to the party unscathed, while a distressed Cynthia is comforted by her friend as her birthday night is cut short.
These incidences are not dwelt on however, their candid depiction precedes the quick follow up of another corner of the party in which life keeps going on. In a didactic Mangrove, we witness a historical retelling of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black Londoner protestors who were put on trial for inciting a riot. Lovers Rock however, invites viewers to indulge in a pleasure party. In what resembles a rendition of the Ernie Barnes' Sugar Shack in motion, McQueen asks us to revel in a black, carefree release.
The climax of this joy, and the most enthralling scene of the film: the room enjoying the sweet sound of Janet Kay’s Silly Games, everyone swaying rhythmically. The sequence is drawn out when the crowd collectively decides to keep singing the song even after the music dwindles. Heads thrown back, eyes closed, everyone in the room belting out the lyrics in unison. But it’s the moment when the camera focuses on an elderly couple that really moved me. The older man’s deep, heavy vocals in contrast to his partner’s higher-pitch. The trance-like look on their faces as they heartily sing “I’ve been wanting you / For so long, it’s a shame / Oh, baby / Every time I hear your name / Oh, the pain / Boy, how it hurts me inside.” Both in their own private performance- almost as if they have an appreciation of the song that the rest of us, the much younger crowd as well as the viewers, could never comprehend. The moment is incredibly vulnerable, and it is the poignancy in details such as this one that underscores what McQueen attempts to achieve.
In his interview with The Guardian earlier this year, the British filmmaker of Grenadian and Trinidadian roots talks a lot about telling the truth in his storytelling. With Lovers Rock, a lot of this truth telling resides in the details. A carefully placed hot comb on a stove, the Christian paraphernalia that adorns Martha’s house, the simmering curry goat in one of the opening sequences, all essential to maintaining authenticity of the community the film spotlights. It is this attention to detail that transposes the film from a matter of art attempting to imitate black life, to creating a rendering that makes the two inseparable.