By Shae Davies
Perfectly placed between the first film in the Small Axe anthology, MANGROVE (based on the Mangrove Nine – Black British activists from Notting Hill that clashed with the racist police force there) and the third of the series, RED, WHITE AND BLUE (the origin story of Leroy Logan, a first-generation Brit who joined the police force in 1983 in hopes of changing the system from the inside – sits Lovers Rock.
In contrast to the vicious, honest depiction of the suffering many first and second-generation West Indians were subjected to in London, Lovers Rock is a portrayal of the sweet young love, found by many within the safe spaces they had created for themselves. In a city that continued to find ways of rejecting them, including the ban from attending white clubs, the birth of ‘blues parties’ was inevitable. Such as the one in Lovers Rock, set across one night at a house in Ladbroke Grove in 1980.
The Dapper Franklyn (Michael Ward) swaying with Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) to “After Tonight” by Junior English, portray a rare moment of representation on British Television of mainstream Black experiences.
Whilst I am thankful for the honest, hard hitting and necessary truth delineated in McQueen’s Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, I am even more thankful for a glimpse of the other beautiful end of the spectrum. Of the soft smoky light shone on the era of Lovers Rock. 68 minutes of intoxicating energy, vibrant choreography and most importantly, a soul feeding, nostalgia-filled soundtrack. Sound, image and mood melting together to create an immersive cinematic experience.
Set against the backdrop of a hostile city, Lovers Rock provides an essential part of the Small Axe anthology, an authentic reflection of the West Indian experience in Britain, of the soulful culture that runs deep throughout Britain’s history. Where films such as Mangrove serve the purpose of highlighting the trauma and suffering of the Black community, Lovers Rock serves as a beautiful and timely reminder that Black history is also full of joy, community and celebration.
Scenes shift through the party, like you might find yourself moving from room to room, exploring things, discovering people. As the viewer we venture through an evening of pulsating celebration, energetic dance sequences and songs played out at length. There is an almost spiritual moment to Janet Kay’s Silly Games, 5 minutes of aching romance in the voices of everyone in the room, attempting to hit Kay’s signature falsetto. As the music stops, the young people are so lost in it, continuing the song in acapella, hands clutched against chests, eyes shut. Not wanting it to end, the night or the song. The hypnotic lull of it seduces us, its ethereal flow carries us throughout the rest of the film, slow grooving through the crowd. At this party we are not just the fly on the wall, we are every song carried across the floorboards, through the swaying bodies, lingering on faces.
The intimacy of the moment is so striking. As a viewer its clear many people in the room are strangers, but the music, the soft looks, the sharing of food, it’s so pure. What makes Lovers Rock so piercing, is the details. Everything about Lovers Rock is done with consciousness, to say something, with a purpose. The power of music, the sense of community, Lovers Rock is a reflection of people living in the moment.
There is even an appearance by Dennis Bovell who wrote Silly Games and a man seen carrying a large white cross on his shoulders, an ode to the actual man seen frequently in Ladbroke Grove, well known to locals.
Alongside the romance of the evening, are threatening undertones hinted at throughout. Including the group of white boys that harass Martha and the quietly threatening aura of Bammy. All of which are overcome by the power of community.
Lovers Rock represents the power of community, the power of music, the power of letting go of all the tensions they would have been faced with Monday to Friday and leaving them at the door. To be able to enter a room full of strangers and feel so connected. To drink, smoke and slow whine to good music, Lovers Rock encapsulates a romantic point in time where many fell in love at these parties, despite the social injustice that raged on outside of them. These parties provided escapism from that hostility, a euphoria amongst those that could connect with each other, blossoming together in a sacred space where culture, music and good food was met in its rawest form and individuals were allowed to be themselves without judgement. Complete and utter human connection.
I found myself spending the rest of the day hoping and wondering if Martha would call Franklyn at 5 after church like she promised.
Much like Janet Kay’s – Silly Games lingers throughout the room and throughout the film… Lovers Rock lingers on my mind.