Steve McQueen, quite simply, is an exquisite filmmaker. As an artist, he is similar to a trained fighter with knowledge of pressure points, knowing exactly where and when to strike to render you helpless as you sit and stare at the events unfolding before you on screen. The characters in his features are often in distress and that forms the heart and nucleus of his films; they are examinations of human character while in distress. Hunger is about the stress of prison, getting beaten and abused at the hands of the guards, and a hunger strike with the background of politically-charged violence. Michael Fassbender in Shame is under the personal, emotional duress of sex addiction. 12 Years A Slave combines every form of mental, emotional, and physical stress you could possibly impose on another human being. Widows has emotional distress combined with the stress of the life-threatening powers that be. Due to this, McQueen’s films are often cold, brutal, and unforgiving, but the punches they pack are precise and impactful.
When I heard about his new series, Small Axe, I was excited due to how masterful he was as an artist and how his films are always incredible. Yet, I was apprehensive due to the cruelty and harshness of his previous work . However, none of the five reached the levels of physical brutality we have previously seen – it was more systematic brutality, the system dividing and starving the West Indian community in London of knowledge and freedom simply for being a different race. It’s enough to make anyone’s blood boil as much as any physical or emotional toil from his other films. However, one of the films didn’t feature violence, ferocity, or barbarity. It was a celebration of culture, music, and love. Lovers Rock had its own moments of intensity with racial tensions brimming beneath the surface, but physicality was focused more on dance with its intricate movements and meanings extolled. This allows the audience to relax so they can let the ocean wave of reggae wash over and feel completely in the moment, and experience the uncontrolled myriad of sights and sounds that come with a house party. The film is completely comprised of atmosphere, mood, and fantastic character work. It is meant to recreate a specific time and place, insert you in the middle, and keep you there. It provides you with a comprehensive, holistic experience. McQueen does an astounding, miraculous job. In a remarkably brief 70 minutes, McQueen entrances you, serenades you, rumbles and rolls with you before depositing you in the morning sun after a dizzying night out.
Lovers Rock is centered around Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) attending a house party and her subsequent blooming romance with Franklyn (Micheal Ward). However, a revolving door of other characters appear, disappear, and then reappear through the course of the night, such as Samson (Kadeem Ramsay), the DJ curating and pacing the mood of the party interspersed with his own rhymes and spin on reggae. These characters are what give the film depth and story. It’s one thing to create a palpable atmosphere with each frame delicately composed to provide an encompassing experience, but it’s the little stories within the larger picture that make it compelling. Samson provides the soundtrack and controls the mood for the various yarns and chronicles being spun. When a slower, quieter song begins playing, the pace of the dancing declines but movement becomes more deliberate and the souls of the characters begin to intertwine and mingle is when the little dramas play out. Martha and Franklyn grow closer, leaving no space between them as their hands begin to wander and their hips begin to move in unison. The carnal, sexual energy between the two as the dance progresses and they get lost in each other is almost tangible as it radiates off the screen into our own hearts and minds. Yet, other stories are beginning to play out. Cynthia (Ellis George), the birthday girl in her brand new red dress, who believes herself to be an honored guest at this party, gets increasingly annoyed because she can’t get the guy she wants and feels she has been upstaged and overshadowed by Martha. When the morning rolls around and Martha and Franklyn go for a spin on his bicycle and he takes her to his own little hideaway, their romance is practically fully realized and you become invested in their lives and their relationship. As with many of the great so-called “hangout” films, the characters begin to feel like friends you wish to visit over and over again.
I’ve mentioned multiple times that Lovers Rock is composed of atmosphere and mood and that McQueen creates it magnificently. It’s astonishing how well he manages to recreate an incredibly specific time and place. I believe it begins with the music – sound sets the tone for each scene and how the mood progresses throughout the film, from the slower love songs to burgeoning romances until the party devolves into a maddening, energetic, and vibrant display of the manic internal energy of each partygoer. Despite this, McQueen guides us there without moving too quickly through the limited runtime. You gain a full and complete sense of a house party and the atmosphere and scene it cultivates. By using roving camerawork, exploring the dance floor, and getting close and personal with the actors in the scene, you notice each subtle hand movement, each time characters lock eyes and you hear the unspoken words between them. You see the sweat glistening off their foreheads and feel the sweat dripping down the walls, allowing you to see every facet of this party. Then as the party winds down to its final stages, it becomes an asylum as the people still there release their emotions and turn the party into a frenzy, full of dizzying camerawork that really puts you inside the action. Yet, Lovers Rock also puts you inside the moment by occasionally showing racial tension. For most of the film, it’s just barely there, beneath the surface but only breaching a few times, such as when Martha leaves to find her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) but instead she encounters a couple of white men with threatening looks in their eyes. Thankfully she is saved before anything happens. Though Lovers Rock is a markedly less unsettling film than McQueen’s usual fare, it is a fantastic film about reggae jams, the raw sexual energy within the arms of another, and the celebration of a culture with its own sound and style that is magnificently put on display.