Small Axe – ‘Lovers Rock’ – review

As part of a series of films, under the banner of Small Axe, British director Steve McQueen has brought a collection of dramas depicting the life of black people in the seventies and eighties in London. By all accounts, the first of the dramas, Mangrove, was well received.

Based on a true story, it tells of the Mangrove Nine and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, who was part of the nine and involved in the British Black Panther movement. I did not see the episode, so cannot say whether it is good or not.

Unfortunately, I did watch the second instalment, Lovers Rock. It is not good. Before I get to the many gripes, I would like to point out the good points. The costume and makeup department and set designs are excellent.

The clothing and set design invoke memories of my youth and the sound boxes, slick clothing and, to some extent, the music, definitely takes me back. That is it for the good. With a story by Steve McQueen and screenplay by McQueen and Courttia Newland, it is hard to see what story they were trying to tell.

I say story but it is difficult to explain what the story was. On IMDB it is described thus: ‘A single evening at a house party in 1980s West London sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance and music.’ That makes it sound like an interesting watch. It is not.

The last scene in the short film sees the main character, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), getting into her bed in her clothes, having sneaked out to go to the party, explains the…story? 

The film was mostly a music video, with Janet Kay’s Silly Games getting more airplay in the film than it has probably had in the past decade.

I was not a reggae person. I went to the odd party that was reggae heavy but it was never my thing. I think Steve McQueen grew up in a house without music. He definitely was not around black music and he never went to a black party, not on the evidence of this film.

In a seventy-minute film, McQueen managed to play the entire version of both Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting — and I would have to say that is a hard ‘no’. That was never a tune in any black party, reggae or otherwise — and an extended version of the aforementioned Silly Games. 

He did not even have enough knowledge of that time to put terrible singers in for the Janet Kay high note.

Music takes up at least a quarter of the runtime. The music is good, especially for those who lived through that time and remember it but the time could have been used better writing a more coherent story or even a proper story.

At the house where the party is happening, the household is Grenadian but for some reason, only known to McQueen, everybody speaks with a Jamaican lilt. Or tries. 

I’m assuming, though I could be wrong, that these are supposed to be mostly first-generation Brits, so born in the UK, yet they all speak as if they got off the boat.

Yes, back in the day a lot of black people did put on a Jamaican accent, regardless of where their parents came from. What we did not do was speak like that all of the time. 

It is not a different language that only black people understand. Black or not, even Jamaicans, do not go into their homes and switch to patois.

There is an interrupted sexual assault, something that would have definitely had more of a repercussion than it does in this film, and the would-be rapist is wearing a cream suit. He was trying to assault the girl in the garden. No black man was about to get down on the grass in his sweet garments!

There is a group of black guys jumping up and down, pogo style, in the middle of a party. No, just no. No one was jumping up like that at a party. Nobody looks cool jumping and looking cool was always of the utmost importance. This entire film is a myth.

It is bad enough that there is very little British black output on television, with even classic British black programs such as Desmond’s or The Fosters nowhere to be seen on British screen, even in this age of multiple channels. 

That Lovers Rock should be written, produced and directed by a black person is disappointing.

It is good that British black talent is making television or film and it hurts to critique one of the few black shows to make it to the screen but McQueen’s effort is poor. 

Admittedly, I did not overly enjoy Twelve Years A Slave but I did hope that, as McQueen is British, he would be able to fashion a memorable and relatable film. He does not. Lovers Rock is a disappointing and retrograde effort.

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