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Review: The eternal splendour of ‘Lovers Rock’

Just like weed songs and mothers’ care songs are institutions to the point of being subgenres in reggae, so too are the dance nostalgia songs. In these songs, the dances, particularly those of an older era, are romanticised as being close to utopic. 

There was less brandishing of guns, the tunes go, and there was less of the skulking guy-on-the-corner thing. Patrons would pair up. The sexual tension would ramp up. The singles, too, would hold their own vibe, almost oblivious. If a man started trouble, the high tempers would be quelled just in time so as not to disrupt the flow of the party.

Although the dance might have been a slice of heaven — the land of herb stalks and slow grinding — the bubble was fragile, not completely sealed off from the elements. But for black folk who held these jams in the midst of their captivity, it may as well have been solid as a rock.

Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the second in an anthology of five films based on black life in Britain, is a pitch-perfect representation of this. McQueen and his team take us inside the bubble. From the first moment, we are more than just voyeurs, with the intimate prepping scenes cajoling us to participate. 

We are there through the party’s various moods and we linger on its accoutrements: the juvenile male posturing, the bashfulness and indignation of the women’s responses and, importantly, the sleek fashions. There is a self-awareness and abandon expressed through body movements and there is a meticulous appraisal of the soundsystem culture underpinning it all.  

Kadeem Ramsay as the selector at Steve McQueen’s recreation of a blues party. (BBC Studios)

As one of McQueen’s writers, Courttia Newland, says, the film confronts this question: “How do we manifest our true selves in a place where we are not the hosts?” In as much as racial tension stalks the lives of McQueen’s protagonists, when it shows up at the party it often wears a disguise, masking itself as different types of violence. The decisive moves to contain it, are less acts of heroism than they are acts of collective care. (Anthony B’s plea of “Bwoi leave the magazine” in the song Waan Back definitely comes to mind.)

For McQueen, the five-film Small Axe anthology seeks to bring to light histories of black British life that have not properly been acknowledged. In a talk with New York Film Festival director of programming Dennis Lim, McQueen calls Lovers Rock, preceded by the politically charged film Mangrove, “the heart” of the anthology. Even without having seen what comes after in the series, one can easily approximate what McQueen means. 

Not merely an ode to a style of reggae emerging out of London in the mid-1970s, Lovers Rock is a cinematic feat, where for long stretches McQueen washes us in the beauty of black being, with softly lit skin, little dialogue and evocative sonic accompaniment. 

A case can be made for Lovers Rock finding communion with works such as Babylon, If Beale Street Could Talk and even Idris Elba’s Yardie. But if all these were part of an album, McQueen’s film would be that ethereal interlude late in the proceedings, “half short, twice strong”, to borrow from GZA. A period piece like the rest of the collection, Lovers Rock achieves a timelessness through its specificity, Newland says.

The anchoring roles of Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Michael Ward cannot be downplayed as the couple slowly finding their groove, but Lovers Rock’s ultimate sleight of hand lies in the distending of that anchor, huddling us together for an ephemeral, yet seemingly eternal, moment of splendour.

Small Axe is broadcast on BBC Brit, DStv channel 120 on Mondays. Lovers Rock shows on November 23

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