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The Dance Floor Is Always at the Center of Steve McQueen’s ‘Lovers Rock’

The second chapter of the five-film Small Axe, in which Steve McQueen attempts to excavate glimpses of black British life from the Sixties through the Eighties, is rooted in reggae

There’s a strong chance that anyone recommending Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock — the second chapter of his ongoing Small Axe film series, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — has gone out of their way to mention that scene. The moment in question, set to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” is indeed a showstopper: improvisational and free, the kind of moment in which the bright screen separating a movie from its audience suddenly seems malleable, porous. All of a sudden, you’re no longer watching a movie, but a part of one. Your body is moving alongside those onscreen, even if you’re sitting still. You’re hitting the high notes like they are, even if silent; you’re smiling in wonder, like everyone else, at the woman who’s really hitting those notes, who’s lost herself in them. And you’re watching it all happen in images that beckon you forth, images that beautifully sum up the sense of losing oneself, abandoning oneself, to radiant sounds and communal feelings. 

It’s freeing — liberatory in a way that followers of McQueen’s film work so far (the IRA drama Hunger, with its shit-streaked prison walls; the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, with its climactic evisceration of an enslaved black woman’s body; and so on) may find surprising for this filmmaker. That may be but one of the reasons the film seems so refreshing. It is not without darkness: It is powerfully, subtly attuned to the dynamics between and among men and women, in particular. That “Silly Games” scene, which happens also to double to the romantic centerpiece between two of the film’s lead characters, has a startling tail — an encroachment of male violence that had been hinted at all along and with which we learn our heroine, Martha (a lovely Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), is painfully familiar. But even this, woven into the fabric of the movie just so, resists the abjection some of us have come to expect of McQueen’s work. “Come stand by me, sis”: This is the line that seals that door shut, only for new ones — new invigorations, new glimpses of life — to arise in its place. 

All of which is consistent with McQueen’s particular mission in Small Axe — even as Lovers Rock stands out in part for adhering less closely to straight narrative than the other films here. The five-film Small Axe is McQueen’s attempt to excavate glimpses of black British life from the 1960s through the 1980s. Modeled in part on the memories and experiences of its maker, the movie is specifically concerned with West Indian immigrants and their children. And it astutely, at times even polemically, dredges up everything that comes with this territory: the police violence and ensuing uprisings, the music and food and rituals of daily life, the prevailing attempts of black immigrants to make spaces for themselves — and to hold onto and protect those spaces — in a country whose hostilities were impressed upon them by not only their neighbors, but the highest powers in the land.

You can feel that power in Lovers Rock despite this being a film that by-and-large pushes those forces to the margins and puts black immigrant life itself, black youth and music and soul, front and center. You may hear the movie get described as a 70-minute-long dance party, and though not incorrect, this one-line summary is incomplete. The blues parties of the kind McQueen recreates here were defiant alternatives to the black club scene which, thanks to the government-enforced closures of black clubs in the early ‘80s, suddenly withered. And so this is a party that arrives with a weighty context which, without even detailing the political circumstances onscreen, McQueen infuses into the tones and freedoms of the movie. 

Where Mangrove, Small Axe’s opening number, detailed the police attacks and ensuing uprisings surrounding the storied Mangrove restaurant — a West Indian mecca in London’s Notting Hill — Lovers Rock’s attention is strictly trained on the space itself. It’s as if McQueen is retelling the tale of the Mangrove restaurant and the “Mangrove 9,” who were taken to court for trying to defend it, but without the noise of a specific historical incident to capture, and without the bloody business necessary to detail that noise. There’s no trial in Lovers Rock. Cops are, but for one shot of the movie, reduced to the brash irony of DJ sounds. There’s resistance — these parties were acts of resistance — but no uprising. No “politics” in the way we so often, with damningly limited imagination, seem to define that term.