Moments planted over the course of Lovers Rock’s sensational 70 minutes threaten to interrupt the vibe as conflict often does in films centered on race. The debut entry of Steve McQueen’s five-part cinematic series Small Axe opens with its various faces, who we’ll get to know later on, preparing for an epic house party in 1980 London packed wall to wall with the greatest hits from Black artists of the 1970s. Once the party starts, the film carries on at a pace resembling real time, meticulously building tension while purposefully misdirecting audience expectations of where that tension is going to go.
At one point, a boisterous partyer at the front door risks an altercation with the mild-mannered yet burly bouncer. A faint siren enters from the distance, and the bouncer rips the man inside, knowing that’s the more peaceful option than asking the police to remove the man causing trouble, or even letting them see him. The cops never show up again, and the tension shifts to the micro-arcs happening inside the party. This moment perfectly illustrates Lovers Rock’ goal. McQueen and cowriter Courttia Newland have crafted a story much more about love and community than racism, all while still acknowledging how the latter only makes the former stronger in the Black community.
Though Lovers Rock spends much of its time with a handheld cameraman in the throes of the party, constantly refocusing our attention on different faces in the crowd going through their own large or small stories over the course of the night, the central narrative revolves around young Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, making a quietly strong debut) as she navigates the party after the friend she came with leaves early on without saying goodbye. Naturally, there’s a man after her affections (Michael Ward), and though Martha is resistant at first, a genuine romance builds between them, one that would be no less significant if it’s just for one night rather than the rest of their lives. Nights like these are eternal, anyway.
McQueen seemingly only casually comes back around to Martha when he and cinematographer Sabier Kirchner aren’t just artistically taking part in the festivities, but she’s something of the guardian angel of the gathering. Seen getting between the aforementioned bouncer and boisterous partyer and other potentially bad incidents to keep the peace, and perhaps subconsciously the mood, Martha is the hero to several other partygoers, and yet herself the main character of her own story. Her spiritual partners are a holy trinity of DJs, spinning the best of Carl Douglas, the Revolutionaries, and more while passing out reefers to anyone jamming on a different frequency.
Mood is what makes Lovers Rock such a joyous, air-tight celebration of this specific moment in Black culture. The tempo escalates with the night and guests’ intoxication, evolving belting the hits with your besties into a more primal form of celebration built upon forgiveness and unity.
With this near perfect flow, McQueen has conjured something truly special in the year 2020: a vivacious, joyful night out in a crowded, sweaty house where the world’s problems remain outside its walls. But in a stroke of collective genius, neither the script nor the performers pretend like you can shed how those issues affect you no matter how free of an environment you’re in. Lovers Rock is a brilliant reminder of the importance of the Black safe space and the beauty baked into it. Whether you’ve spent the year missing out on nights like these or are getting your first glimpse into a world you rightfully wouldn’t normally invade, McQueen’s profound, electrifying work here is likely to at once bring you a smile and a tear while you shake your booty along with it.