Small Axe – Lovers Rock

Steve McQueen’s series of Small Axe films, showing on five consecutive weekends on the BBC, sets out to show different aspects of the experience of Black people living in Britain. The title references Bob Marley’s song about equal rights being a small axe chopping persistently at a large tree.

Last week’s Mangrove was entirely what you would expect of this, especially from the director of 12 Years a Slave, showcasing a significant court case in UK history that highlighted racism and injustice in the system. McQueen is not just the director of 12 Years a Slave though, he is also the man behind Shame which was an intimate portrayal of one man’s existence and the struggles he experienced behind close doors.

Lovers Rock is as different from Mangrove as 12 Years a Slave is from Shame, and may be a harder watch for people who switched on to the series last week, especially white people. It isn’t harder because it shows brutality and it won’t turn off certain quarters of a Caucasian audience because it evokes cultural guilt though, quite the opposite. I suspect it may be harder to access for some viewers because it shows so specifically the experience of Black twenty somethings in a quite specific decade, that some just may not be able to identify with it. Also, intimate as it is, it doesn’t show the anguish that is hidden away from others but the joy. This is exactly why you have to watch it, because this is not something that is captured on screen enough, if ever. Not quite like this at least.

There are two points in the film where you see characters behaving differently, both when they are in front of white people in a perceived position of authority. One is at a place of work with a boss and the other on a bus with a ticket collector. Like in Hidden Figures, the heartbreak here is not in the protagonists facing overt acts of racism but in their accepting that they are seen as below others. It’s just a way of life and it’s almost as hard to watch. It’s important to show this as a contrast to how free they are away from the eyes of others outside their community.

Lovers Rock is an almost fly on the wall look at an 80s house party where the titular musical genre plays. It is a very pure portrayal of Black experience in this case. The camera stays with the dancing for long periods, punctuated by the party goers occasional interactions off the dance floor. These are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes volatile, sometimes threatening, sometimes affectionate but always passionate.

As a stand alone film Lovers Rock is unusual with its lack of narrative and probably works best as part of anthology. At times it does feel like standing at the side of a party watching everyone else having more fun than you, especially if you’ve not been to a party like this before or if, say, you’ve been banned from large social events since March.

Next Sunday brings John Boyega in Red, White and Blue which tells the true story of a man who joined the police to challenge the racism within after his father was assaulted by two white officers. I’m sure it will be powerful but for now we’ve got something that is different and smaller but still sharp, which means it could fit the title of the series best of all.

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