In “Lovers Rock,” we see a young woman surreptitiously sneaking out of a house, her shoes in her hand. Meanwhile, a group of young men clears furniture from the main room of another London house, making way for a turntable and speakers. In the kitchen, women begin to prepare curried goat and callaloo, laughing and singing as they bump into each other in the bustling, cramped space.
It’s not immediately clear what’s going on here. But in the sensitive hands of filmmaker Steve McQueen, the point of “Lovers Rock” becomes mesmerizingly clear. Since making his astonishing feature debut in 2008 with Hunger, McQueen — whose 2013 film 12 Years a Slave won the best picture Oscar — has developed a cinematic language all his own. It’s a vernacular that’s simultaneously expansive and microscopically detailed. And it’s purely visual, especially when it comes to the way McQueen observes and deploys the human figure.
McQueen’s vocabulary is on particularly glorious display in this lambent gem of a film. “Lovers Rock” takes place over the course of one night in West London’s West Indian community in 1980, when the titular musical style — a sensuous reggae subgenre — was at its height. As the film’s characters congregate to dance, eat, drink, and flirt, an everyday house party becomes something soaring and transcendent and feels less like a movie than an ecstatic trance.
If there’s a plot to “Lovers Rock,” it centers on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), the young woman we see at the film’s beginning. She and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) meet at a nearby playground, then make their way to the party, which is in full swing when they get there. McQueen, who wrote the script with Courttia Newland, has a keen eye for the subtle come-hither glances and furtive gestures of seduction: Eventually, Martha begins to dance with a charismatic stranger named Franklyn (Micheal Ward), and the night unfolds before them with the beckoning allure of the unknown.
That sense of enticement also comes with an element of danger; the viewer is never quite sure when the escalating energy might spill into violence, especially where the men are concerned. But that sense of destabilization feels just as true to life as the pure pleasure that McQueen luxuriates in and invites the audience to share, whether in the perfectly curated clothes, furnishings, and textures that form the movie’s gorgeous backdrop, or a stunning moment, midway through the proceedings, when a popular song comes on and the partygoers break into their own rapturous a cappella version.
It’s a levitating sequence and typical of McQueen’s gift for composition, pacing, and liltingly graceful camera movements: As a heart-stopping juncture, it’s of a piece with the unbroken 17-minute shot in Hunger when IRA activist Bobby Sands debates with a priest over the morality of embarking on the hunger strike he knew might kill him. And it’s consistent with the patience and assurance with which McQueen has composed Small Axe, the five-film anthology of which “Lovers Rock” is the second installment.
Although “Lovers Rock” is based on McQueen’s memories of the “Blues parties” he and his family attended (Martha is inspired by one of his aunts), the other films in Small Axe are much more specific and fact-based: “Mangrove,” which debuted last week, chronicled the 1971 trial of café owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), who had been routinely harassed by the London police until being arrested for incitement to riot; “Red, White and Blue” stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, the son of a similarly oppressed West Indian immigrant who tried to change the system from within by becoming a police officer; “Alex Wheatle” tells the real-life story of a young Brixton man who overcame abandonment, neglect, and harrowing persecution to become a popular children’s book author. The most personal film of the series, “Education,” tacks closely to McQueen’s own childhood, during which he was almost lost to England’s punishingly caste-based school system.
Singly and taken together, the films of Small Axe create a potent portrait of individuals, as well as an entire community, that have been virtually erased from the cinematic record. Alongside those tales of oppression and resistance, “Lovers Rock” provides the balm of seeing people at their most liberated, nourished, and self-sustaining. By bringing these stories to light with such clarity, feeling, and immersive sensory detail, McQueen performs a powerful act of restorative justice: His is a cinema not just of intoxicating beauty but of profound healing.
At one point in “Red, White and Blue,” Leroy Logan notes that the authorities who routinely hound his friends and family are playing a long game. So is Steve McQueen and, if Small Axe is any indication, it’s one that he’s indisputably winning.