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Lovers Rock

January 11, 2021

Lovers Rock (2020)
Director: Steve McQueen
Actors: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling

Lovers Rock (2020) directed by Steve McQueen • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Synopsis: Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) meet at a reggae house party in West London in 1980.

Review: This fascinating, sensorial tour de force by Steve McQueen is a complete sea change in tone and style from Mangrove – the previous film in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of films. Where Mangrove was very narrative-driven, forceful and centred on a specific historical event, Lovers Rock is largely exposition-free as it documents and sensualises a night spent at a reggae house party in the Notting Hill area in the early 1980s. Like Mangrove, it is still fundamentally documenting and celebrating the early fermentation of West Indian culture in the UK, but any social commentary and didacticism is much more stealthy here. 

Not entirely, but for the most part, Lovers Rock omits the context of white London’s reception of this social scene, and, instead, McQueen goes interior – soaking the film in the music, food and colour of his West Indian community. Reggae music is particularly to the forefront – especially when the party drags on and couples start to form, with lovers rock becoming the predominant soundtrack to the night. This is when the two main protagonists – Martha and Franklyn – fuse bodies and souls together on the dancefloor, and there’s such a clever ending to the film when Martha and Franklyn’s night-time idyll ends on their return to the outside world. Franklyn’s Jamaican accent, something he so proudly employs on the night out, is revealed to be subservient to the London accent he uses when pacifying his white boss the following morning. And Martha – from a proper God-fearing Jamaican family – just about shimmies herself back up to her bedroom in time to be ordered by her mother to get ready for church that morning. It’s an exquisite visual gag, but also a moving idea too – as Martha realises how it’s time to bottle up her secret nocturnal life for a return to her traditional family routine. And though the film is largely nostalgic and celebratory about its West Indian community, McQueen doesn’t omit some of the less palatable elements: black-on-black crime is hinted at, and the patriarchy and sexism inherent in a certain strain of Caribbean men is apparent too. (January 2021)

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