BBC One Small Axe: Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock proves joy is a radical act

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After last week’s prescient opener Mangrove, Steve McQueen’s BBC anthology Small Axe is back with Lovers Rock, a rapturous ode to Black joy starring Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St Aubyn.     

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology started on BBC One last week with the striking Mangrove, a vital story of protest, police brutality and the Mangrove Nine’s fight for justice. This week, the series returns with a very different, yet just as striking portrait of Black British history – and it can only be described as a vibe.

Lovers Rock stars newcomer Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Top Boy’s Micheal Ward as Martha and Franklyn, two strangers who meet at a Caribbean house party in 1980s west London. The hour-long film – which gets its name from a genre of romantic reggae – spans a single, sensual night, and we’re sucked into it completely as the camera dips and swoops amid the swaying bodies and swirls of smoke. Ward is charismatic and charming as the love interest, and at times his chemistry with the luminous St Aubyn is so real that you feel you should respectfully look away and leave them to it.

Though the main focus is the budding romance between Martha and Franklyn, plot is regularly suspended for minutes at a time in favour of scenes of pure artistic beauty: ecstatic dance-offs; the rhythmic call-and-response of the DJs and revellers; and at one point a spine-tingling a cappella rendition of Janet Kay’s Silly Games. The pauses allow us to succumb to the pure joy of the moment – a mirroring of the characters’ lives, as they push the harsh realities that linger beyond the front door out of their minds for one Saturday night.

Lovers Rock is an uplifting celebration of British-Caribbean culture, but it doesn’t ignore the threats that are always lurking on the periphery. For Black women in particular, not even a party is a safe haven – a fact astutely illustrated by McQueen in a sexual assault scene that takes place in the garden, swiftly broken up by a defiant Martha. Our protagonist is torn out of her romantic reverie – and therefore so are we – once again when she goes out to look for her friend Patty in the street, and ends up being harassed by a group of white men making monkey noises.

BBC One Small Axe: Lovers Rock star Amarah-Jae St Aubyn
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn as Martha and Shaniqua Okwok as Patty in Lovers Rock.

Ultimately, though, Lovers Rock is an ode to Black joy and the freedom to be found in music. It is a snapshot of Black love – both the romantic kind and the kind that spans communities and continents – that zooms in on the everyday humanity of the so often dehumanised Windrush generation. In an anthology series that promises to be gut-wrenching and urgent in its ability to put Britain’s history of racism and injustice right where we can see it, Lovers Rock is an interlude that proves joy can be a radical act, too. And for one blissful hour, we all get to escape into the sea of knowing smiles, stamping feet and upturned hands.

Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock on Sunday 22 November at 9pm on BBC One.

Images: BBC 

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist’s sub-editor. She mostly writes about music, TV, film and books – all the best things in life.

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