With Lovers Rock, McQueen mostly turns down his directorial affectations and let’s the film’s beauty and joy act as guide.
Steve McQueen has always been a fine purveyor of potentially rich and powerful narratives, but he’s been much less consistent as their steward. His first three features (Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave) all focused on singular individuals locked in combat with dominant cultural norms or mores, and succeeded to varying degrees in this character-heavy vein. His fourth film, Widows, is a detour into genre work entirely ill-suited to the director’s strengths, but it’s also the most illustrative study of McQueen. It’s both artlessly didactic, building its narrative to some eventual mic-drop social commentary, and visually ostentatious, employing showy camerawork to no discernible purpose other than the pursuit of that one shot. Most egregious are the director’s cheap, stake-raising shock tactics, which in earlier films emerged organically from his protagonists’ tribulations, but which have no natural place in Widows. Lovers Rock — technically the second of McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy, but the first to screen as NYFF’s Opening Night Film — doesn’t entirely mitigate the director’s irksome instincts, but nonetheless proves a uniquely joyous work within his filmography.
Lovers Rock is, at its core, a dancehall film, capturing the swaying bodies and small human dramas that occur across a single night during a 1980s house party. While other Small Axe films (notably, Mangrove) open up into more expansive cultural interrogations, it’s the microcosmic intimacy here that marks the most tangible aesthetic shift for McQueen. The director resists the urge to overtly contextualize his small story — though cursory knowledge of the (declining) anti-imperialist Rastafari culture and resurgent racism of Thatcherian Britain help define the particular milieu of Lovers Rock — and leaves the soapbox at home. Small Axe places much emphasis on the space afforded Black communities, and while other entries deal explicitly with the frictions that occur when white hegemony meets movements for minority equality, Lovers Rock instead offers something of a respite from this explicit confrontation. Rather than dwell on traumas, McQueen allows the men and women here to dissolve into warm hues and bouncy reggae rhythms, blanketed in the safety of community and reveling in willful, fleeting ignorance of the world outside. The dance floor, a modified living room space bathed in artificial amber lighting, is a brief haven where bodies abut and connections are made; young women practice dance moves beforehand, and young men, festooned in their best (period-ludicrous) dress, attempt suavity.
This being a McQueen film, it isn’t entirely subtle. Even the film’s best scenes — which here happens to be a collective, prolonged a cappella extension of Janet Kay’s woozy “Silly Games” — is held a bit long and feels like a conspicuous flourish. The director’s camera, which should float through the dance floor’s moving tableau, capturing with nonchalance the couplings and gestures and intoxications, instead employs cuts and close-ups, punishing where it should be gentle, driving into bodies and recalling the director’s familiar, heavy-handed intentionality. Unlike films like Climax or Ema or even the Step Up franchise, there’s precious little kineticism here; the cinematography subsumes rather than captures the fluid movement it seeks to showcase. But McQueen offsets some of his inelegant visual tics by overcoming his arch storytelling instincts; he instead focuses on small details that lend real feeling, such as when he continually guides the camera back to one particular reveler during this scene, capturing the humanity of both her exuberance and complete inability to stay on pitch. The director also introduces certain dramatic conflicts that threaten to disrupt the Lovers Rock’s low-key vibes, specifically a sexually rapacious local and an emotionally-disturbed cousin, but as if inverting Widows’ histrionic register, he manages to reconcile these developments with welcome restraint, elegantly absorbing them into the film’s swoony mood.
And that’s the best thing about Lovers Rock; despite a few blips, it’s largely animated by joy rather than directorial affect. Instead of disrupting the refuge of the dance floor, these narrative intrusions accentuate the necessity of it. For one night, the darkness that weighs down on this community is set aside in a way that larger dangers cannot so easily be. For the first time in his career, McQueen leans into sweeping romance, on both a character and communal level, and the resulting film, still tinged with veiled peril, marks an apogee for the director. So even if past films (and other Small Axe efforts) suggest Lovers Rock is little more than a lovely aberration, viewers can find respite in its moving, delicate rhythms.
You can currently stream Steve McQueen’s Mangrove on Amazon [denoted as Episode 2 of Small Axe].
Originally published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.