This year’s New York Film Festival opened with Lovers Rock, one part of an upcoming series for BBC (to be released on Amazon in the US) called Small Axe, consisting of five films by director Steve McQueen. The film and two other installments also playing at this year’s NYFF—Mangrove and Red, White and Blue—were set to play at the Cannes Film Festival before it was cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic. Instead of following suit, NYFF has opened up the festival for virtual screenings, affording those who normally couldn’t make the trip to New York a chance to see the films from the comfort of their own living rooms. It’s fitting then, that, during a time where most people in the United States are confined to their homes, Lovers Rock takes place almost entirely in one house. Though, rather than a grim reminder of the isolation and disconnection many people are facing, it’s quite the opposite: a beautiful celebration of community.
Lovers Rock sees McQueen operating in a very different mode than what we’ve come to expect from him. It unfolds largely over the course of one night, depicting a house party in 1980s London. His previous dramas, Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, are weighty and often difficult to stomach, and even his last film, Widows, was thematically dense (some would argue to its detriment), though nowhere near as hard to swallow. Lovers Rock, on the other hand, is joyful and light, and the filmmaking matches that energy. The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner (McQueen’s regular D.P. Sean Bobbitt was unavailable for Small Axe) is immersive but unintrusive, roaming the halls of the house and putting the audience directly in the middle of the dance floor with everyone. The dance sequences are the major highlight of the film, allowing the audience to soak in the euphoric atmosphere.
Most of the brief 68-minute runtime focuses on the general environment of the party, as attendees drink, smoke, and dance through the night, but the film is not completely without plot. McQueen zeroes in on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (Micheal Ward), two party guests who hit it off and grow closer as the night progresses. McQueen intersperses moments of drama—particularly a late guest arrival who causes a bit of friction—but rather than adding to the realism, these brief interjections distract from the film’s consistent carefree tone. They’re minor detours that don’t lead anywhere, so it begs the question: why include them at all? It seems as if McQueen wasn’t content with a fully observational and aimless version of this story, and instead felt compelled to add substantial events as a way to spice it up, but they end up being the most bland and uninspired moments in the film.
There are, however, some very effective moments where McQueen shows the streets outside the house which strengthen the film’s thematic core. One comes early on where Martha leaves the party, walking down the street to find her friend. She doesn’t make it very far before we see a group of white men congregating, causing her to pause, and as they make racist remarks at her, she turns around and heads back into the party. These glimpses of the hostile world outside, as well as the inclusion of a particularly nefarious (to put it lightly) partygoer, exemplify how comfort and safety are scarce for this Black community. Survival remains an everyday concern, even during a night of celebration. Sadly, this fact holds relevance even today.
Ultimately, Lovers Rock is a joyous and resonant experience, making it the perfect opening to this year’s NYFF, and possibly a great way to ease into the—by all accounts—loftier and more thematically heavy Small Axe installments to come. It’s an expression of love and joy that we don’t often get in cinema nowadays, especially around awards season, as prestige dramas typically flood the market. It would have made for an excellent experience in a crowd setting, but regardless, it’s a perfect escape from the harsh reality we’re all facing outside our doors right now.