Steve McQueen’s glorious film Lovers Rock, one of five stand alone films in his Small Axe anthology, excels in capturing a mood. It is a deeply romantic and sensual tale that speaks volumes through its observation of bodies in motion on a dance floor. Like that euphoric tune that instantly sends a sensation throughout one’s body, McQueen’s film is filled with a sense of joy and hope that is infectious.
Taking viewers into a West Indian community in London in the 1980s, the film is light on plot but heavy on rapturous emotion. The story is rather straightforward as it follows Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) as she sneaks out of her religiously conservative home on a Saturday night to attend a reggae house party with her pal Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). While navigating the pulsing music, advances from men, and side-eyes of jealous women at the party, Martha meets a mechanic named Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Over the course of the night, the initial spark between Martha and Franklyn blossoms into a flame that neither can ignore.
The courtship between Martha and Franklyn does not follow the traditional cinematic tropes, instead McQueen opts for something more real and palatable. There are no big speeches, in fact the couple spends a significant portion of the film apart as Martha must deal with other moments of drama that arise, but their connection on the dance floor is undeniable. McQueen accentuates their bond by allowing his camera to observe the various dynamics at the party. Whether it is the new couplings forming, or an astonishing extended sequence of musical harmony that washes over all the party goers, there is an energy to the night that is ripe for love to flourish.
It is in these moments where McQueen subtly emphasizes how rarely Black joy is captured onscreen. In the few instances when West Indian culture is depicted in film it is usually in relation to trauma. Instead of depicting the community through the lens of police brutality and racism, McQueen just lets his characters exist. They are real people whose joys and passions are just as worthy of cinematic treatment as others. This is not to say that McQueen ignores the realities of being in a Black body in London at the time. At the peripheries of Lovers Rock are a group of white men whose presence indicates potential harm to Martha, flashing police lights and the reminder of the racial power structure at Franklyn’s place of work.
McQueen ensures that the presence of whiteness and the potential for danger it can cause remain at a distance. For one night at least, he allows the powerful light and warmth of community to be the only thing that matters in the world. A stunning celebration of love and joy, Lovers Rock sways to its own deeply romantic beat.