Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the second installment in his Small Axe film anthology, celebrates the highs of a house party. It also explores the gendered violence that can brew in these spaces. Read more coverage of the London Film Festival.
Lovers Rock, the second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of five films, seems, at first, to be the most lighthearted of the series. Small Axe chronicles stories from London’s West Indies community between the ‘60s and ‘80s, and all of them but Lovers Rock are true stories that tackle racism. Lovers Rock stands apart as the most lighthearted of the films, the only fictional story, and the only one with a female protagonist. The entire 70-minute film is set over one night, at a raucous and joyous house party run and attended by Black Londoners, where Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) dances with her best friend, Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), and falls for a charming stranger, Franklyn (Micheal Ward). It’s a love story, but one with a keen eye for the racial and gendered violence in the periphery while Martha and Franklyn pursue a sweet courtship.
Lovers Rock is episode two in the series after Mangrove, and while the two films are starkly different — the former a dance film, the latter a courtroom drama — there are already patterns emerging. Both films are named after a safe space created by and for the Black community: the Mangrove restaurant that serves cuisine from the West Indies, and the Lover’s Rock house party. McQueen emphasises how welcoming these safe spaces — the restaurant and the dance floor — are by lighting them with a warm, yellow hue, whereas hostile spaces, from the street to the courtroom, are a cold blue. Within, Black Londoners can chat, laugh, and flirt away from the hostile, racist society outside.
But both films are also about how these spaces risk infiltration: that’s more overt in Mangrove, but watching that film first made me really notice the danger in Lovers Rock. The comforts and the community of the restaurant and the party lull the viewer, and the characters, into a false sense of security. The Mangrove restaurant is suddenly and brutally invaded by police several times; police officers are never seen in Lovers Rock, but their sirens are heard, and at one point, a police car rolls up in front of the house, lurking there like a warning. In Lovers Rock, we get to see what one of these safe spaces looks like when, for one sweet night, it’s spared from police invasion.
And it mostly is sweet and joyous, but I’m curious at reactions to the film that only discuss how fun it is when McQueen takes pains to highlight the threat of gendered violence lurking in every corner of the party. A subplot involves a man who is consistently creepy throughout the night and ends up raping one of the guests. But McQueen ensures we understand this isn’t just one bad apple: from the very start, he sets up the house party as a gendered space. The opening sequence of the film sees a group of men maneuvering furniture and setting up sound systems to prepare the party space. Meanwhile, a trio of women stand cramped in the small kitchen, cooking several dishes to sell as party food to the guests. There’s a shot of them through the doorway, so they’re boxed into a narrow, restrictive rectangle. Everyone in the house is happy, smiling, laughing, and singing together in anticipation of the night to come. But McQueen prompts us to note the strict divide of gender roles: men doing manual labour, women in the kitchen.
When the party gets underway, McQueen’s camera documents, but never replicates, the men’s objectification of women. As the dance floor fills up with singles who are yet to partner up, the men lurk, still and silent, at the edge of the room while the women dance excitedly in the centre. The women’s dancing is joyous to watch — emphasised by Martha’s and Patty’s excited squeals when a song they love comes on. But the scene is tinged with a hint of threat, as McQueen cuts to the men gazing on like predators sizing up their prey. Later, McQueen includes a montage of men approaching women from behind, grabbing their shoulders, and sliding down to hold their hands. By cutting together three different men making this exact same motion, one after the other, McQueen draws attention to how this physical possessiveness is part of a cultural script they’re all playing out.
Martha and Franklyn’s romance acts as a counterpoint: when they dance, it’s both extremely sexy and explicitly consensual. McQueen shoots them as equals in the frame as they dance together. When they grind on the dance floor, it’s shot as a closeup of the fabric on their clothes pushing against each other, both partners equally enthusiastic, and neither more in control than the other. Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran’s (Little Women, Atonement) costumes are reliably amazing, but particularly Martha’s dress. It’s purple, loose, and extremely shiny: each time Franklyn touches Martha, the material creases and reflects more light, which registers dynamically on the camera.
Lovers Rock is at its weakest when it loses its focus on Martha and Franklyn amid the spectacle of dance. McQueen does a good job of giving many of the anonymous faces on the dance floor their moment in the spotlight; the way each actor moves and the uniqueness of each of their outfits hint at a whole life off screen that McQueen’s film doesn’t have time to explore. Unfortunately, the camera often loses track of Martha and Franklyn during these wordless dance scenes. It feels like a lost opportunity to further develop their relationship through movement. Then again, the mass of bodies writhing on the dance floor is so entrancing, you can hardly blame McQueen for getting distracted.