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.
And yet. So much of that politics is there from the movie’s very start, with its lush, loving view of the preparations being made for the party to come. Emcees setting up stereos, women in the kitchen giving us our first spontaneous taste of “Silly Games,” the sounds and sights of curry cooking, a couch being moved to make room for a dance floor, early flirtations, and a quick glare from neighboring white residents that sum up the movie’s historical moment.
It’s an opening which, like the “Silly Games” sequence — and like the equally invigorating “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence following that one — captures so much of what the film’s remaining hour will accomplish. Plot? Sure, there’s a sliver. And it is, by and large, anchored in Martha, who sneaks out to attend this party with a friend; meets the charming, sensitive Franklyn (Michael Ward) and gradually falls in sync with him, physically and emotionally, as the night wears on; and navigates the usual thorns of a night out — losing track of her friend, warding off the unwanted attentions of aggressive men, and so on. Other things happen, too, spices that add head to the night’s vibrant but subtle tensions, like the arrival of a young rasta, Martha’s cousin Clifton (Kedar Williams-Stirling), or the travails of the young woman Cynthia (Ellis George).
For a movie that so often feels plotless — and is far more evocative for it — Lovers Rock is heavy with events and strands of narrative that flow in and out of each other. The center, always, is the dance floor. And McQueen (working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner for all five films) makes a point of delivering the grandeur of all the feelings his film evokes — the lusts, jealousies, pleasures, violence — through miniatures. I think back over this movie, and I think of hands gripping asses or thrown over lovers’ shoulders, of stray joints lining a mantle, of the way light from a bulb hanging around a DJ’s neck hits the turntable, the way the party at one point gets so hot that even the walls start to sweat. I think, too, of the abundance of holy crosses — and of the way an immigrant generation’s religion, impressed upon their British-born children, comes off as both a safety net and a rebuke to the unholy matrimonies of music, sex, bodily freedom.
The movie feels at times like a miracle — not least for what it does not do. McQueen’s ability to render a universe of incident and emotion out of granular details, sounds and visions that feel specific and fully lived, should not surprise us at this point in the career. This is a director whose work has long displayed an ability, and a fascinating eagerness to display, the power of dramatic tangents and uncanny effects of sound and image. He also has a habit of announcing politics that were already obvious: that flashback to a cop killing, in Widows, in which a black boy’s murder is visually buttressed by a row of Obama posters, comes to mind.
But when the man is onto something, he’s on. I keep thinking back to that startling hanging scene from 12 Years a Slave, in which the hero’s struggle against a noose — his standing on tip-toe to stay alive — draws on uncomfortably, becomes bulbous and unseemly and all the more realistically terrifying for not copping to the audience’s comfort. I’ve never been able to reconcile the intentions of that scene with the museum-ready perfection and portraiture of the lengthy long take in which it plays out. But the intentions rang loud and clear, and they came to mind as I watched the dance scenes Lovers Rock, with their similar sprawl and adamant resistance to the easy, quick-cutting satisfaction you’ll find in most any other movie. When McQueen makes a scene draw on beyond what you expect to be its limits, pay attention. When “Kunta Kinte Dub” starts blasting and the party erupts with near-Pentecostal fervor, pay attention. What are we seeing? With minimal dialogue and maximum attentiveness, McQueen and his collaborators tell entire stories between people — and between the people onscreen and their British situation writ large, which is only missing from this movie is you’re watching it literally. The freedom of men falling to the ground, the convulsions of pleasure and anger that overtake them when that song comes on, tells me as much as most any scene involving the police, without ever needing to invoke the police.
This is Lovers Rock after all, named for that strain of reggae rooted in the romance of slow hips and black rhythm. The soundtrack is, accordingly and unsurprisingly, a winner — but the movie is doing more than making the most of its soundtrack. Nor is it straight nostalgia McQueen seems to have in mind. Something of a narrative bow wraps this movie up, makes us long for the romances to come, the lives to be lived. But we don’t even need to see what happens next: Lovers Rock lives on in the mind far beyond its actual ending. It is an hour and change spent in the company of black immigrants doing the rich, complicated, too-long-undepicted work of living on their own terms. There are no neat conclusions. Even if there were, the movie has unburied too much, seen and felt too much, for us to need them.