Lovers Rock, Steve McQueen’s ode to a subgenre of reggae, can be discussed as just that – a nostalgic anthem for a very specific point in time at the precipice of the 1980s, which he may have briefly brushed against as he was growing up himself. In fact, this is how this film is often reviewed: an experiential play on the spirit of cinéma vérité celebrating a shared legacy of Londoners of West Indian descent and paying due homage to a transcendental power music holds over people’s souls. But is so much more than that.
Quite frankly, my use of the word ‘experiential’ may be a tad misleading because – at least in some respects – it indicates that not much happens in the film. Superficially speaking, this is the case because Lovers Rock does not have a plot. It doesn’t concern itself with a single protagonist, even though it technically has one, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), whom McQueen uses as an anchor to guide the narrative. Though, if the story was a resplendent sky littered with stars, Martha would be its Polaris – the brightest visible object helping the observer to get their bearings. We observe her as she sneaks out of her house dressed in her Sunday best (as it turns out, for a reason) and joins her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) before they both head over to Ladbroke Grove for a house party. There she meets a young man Franklyn (Michael Ward) and spends the night in his tight embrace hypnotized by the swaying rhythms of Lovers Rock, slowly falling in love. As this little dramatic arc is patiently unfolding, McQueen’s camera is busy roaming in and out of rooms, breathing in the dense smoke-filled atmosphere of the party, exalting itself in the collective hypnosis offered by the beautiful tunes frothing out of speakers.
However, Lovers Rock is not just a simple love story about two young souls finding one another in a crowded room. We must not forget that Steve McQueen, much like Spike Lee, is a champion of subtext and that – apart from the aforementioned desire to shine a light on a forgotten genre of music and a brief moment in time when it was culturally relevant – he is keen to use this story to expound on the rich and troubled legacy of black Britons. Interestingly enough, he does not use the primary sphere of the narrative to do that. He hides his social commentary in between lines of dialogue, in winks, nods, subtle visual jabs and an eerie undertone permeating the film.
Although he is never overtly upfront about it, his film never lets the viewer forget where and when this party takes place. These observations are hidden in a charged exchange of looks between a black young man unloading speakers from a van and a pair of local white boys staring at him from across the street. They’re also in Martha’s deference towards the bus conductor who sternly asks her to buy a ticket, as well as in lewd catcalling and degrading noises made at her by loitering youths when she briefly leaves the party to find her friend. They are in the tone of implicit superiority in the voice of Franklyn’s boss (who is a young white man) after he scolds him for bringing Martha to his workshop. Finally, they are uniformly distributed across the film, just beneath its epidermis, in the overall atmosphere of danger which occasionally peers through the veneer of the story we are supposed to be following: an intangible feeling of an impending catastrophe, like the police barging into the house, blindly swinging their batons and arresting partygoers under trumped-up charges or disturbing the peace, or the local white boys inciting a violent incident, which seems equally plausible.
None of that ever happens. It’s a skillful manipulation on behalf of the filmmaker to illustrate a crucial point and remind the viewer what racism looks like. Racism is hidden in looks. It’s in the silence. It’s in the fear felt by an oppressed individual at every single moment of their lives, as though they were always watched, judged and demeaned. However, this fear dissipates when the characters lose themselves in the music the film is openly celebrating, which turns this entire house party into something more – a church.
Underneath its primary definition as a place of religious worship, a church is an important societal instrument. It has historically served as a sanctuary for the persecuted and oppressed, even when wars would rage outside its walls. It is a place somewhat detached from the regular universe, where people can walk in and spiritually connect – not necessarily with a supernatural deity they all collectively worship – but with one another, through singing in unison and participating in the ritual of the mass. With this description in mind, it is easy to see the house party in Lovers Rock as an incarnation of a church experience where people are welcome to join as long as their intentions are clean and where the evils of the outside world seem – if only briefly – utterly insignificant.
In McQueen’s church, the music is a god in its own right: all-encompassing, omnipresent. It brings people together, wields the power to forgive transgressions, calms frustrated souls. It allows these young people to forget for a night about the trials of their regular existence and lose themselves in the serene ritual of rhythmic nirvana. But the filmmaker does not extend the same courtesy towards the viewers. It is them – not the characters – who are expected to notice the older black gentleman in the corner of the frame in the beginning and at the end of the film. A black man bearing a white cross. This subtle piece of visual symbolism seemingly borrowed from Kieslowski’s Dekalog and filtered through Spike Lee’s stylistic vocabulary is where the thesis of Lovers Rock lies. This film is not only a celebration of a musical culture or a nostalgic trip to the 80s, but a veiled parable attempting to encapsulate the emotional intricacies of what it feels like to be black in Britain, an odyssey of unspoken alienation kept afloat by precious moments of cultural and communal belonging, underpinned by a sense of shared heritage and resonating through beautiful music.