movie review

Small Axe Is a Revelation

And Lovers Rock is undoubtedly one of the most transfixing films of the year. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The human body in motion is one of the purest cinematic pleasures.

Too many modern directors forget the story a body can tell. Just watch any modern musical, framed and cut so as to hide the fact that the chosen actors lack the physical bravura to pull off their roles. But a winding of the hips on the dance floor can disclose pleasure. An outstretched hand can speak to the yearning for connection. A supine repose can shine a light on untold confidence. A walk isn’t just a mode of transportation but a revelatory communiqué — divulging the secrets we wish to keep, the emotions we try to bury.

The first two films in writer-producer-director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series — Mangrove and Lovers Rock — are wildly different in terms of their style, their energy, their intent. Mangrove is a historical exploration set in 1968 that reveals itself partway through to be a courtroom drama. Lovers Rock, undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year, is a transfixing romance not just between the two characters at its center but one about the beauty of the human body, the succor of an energetic party, and the possibility in the hush of a night. Yet they are united not just by their interest in uncovering the dynamics of London’s West Indian population throughout various decades but a curiosity about the bounds of community and how we speak through our bodies — whether it be a fist boldly jutting through the air or a hand caressing the arm of a potential lover.

In Mangrove, McQueen casts his eye on a slice of Black London history by charting the police harassment and ultimate trial that centers on the restaurant that gives the film its title. Frank Crichlow (a finely attuned Shaun Parkes), the owner of the Mangrove, doesn’t see himself as a community leader. But his restaurant becomes a point of refuge and celebration for the West Indians of Notting Hill. “It’s a restaurant, not a battleground,” he says to Black Panther Party member and spokesperson Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright), who is eager to organize a protest against police violence given the frequent harassment the restaurant endures at the behest of PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell). The eventual demonstration, which is walked to the steps of the local precinct, devolves into violence at the hands of the police, leading to nine people — including Frank, Altheia, and married activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) — being tried for rioting and affray and facing a heavy sentence. Altheia understands that it’s not just the group that’s on trial. This is something greater. The case would have ripple effects long after for those seeking to demonstrate against systemic forces.

Mangrove is strongest before it gives way to its courtroom drama, when it is just excavating the way a community binds together. Once it releases, the color and vibrancy is leached from the film for a blunt spectacle full of achingly sincere, sometimes on-the-nose dialogue and a bevy of uneven performances. But before that, there is something magical.

The film opens on Frank playing a game around a table with friends, cigarette smoke billowing and chips clanking together under dim, green-hued lighting. He leaves the parlor and enters into the stark daylight of London’s streets. The camera follows his relaxed but determined gait through the city. In an early aerial shot, we take in not only the ebb and flow of Frank’s movements but the landscape of the changing city. I caught on one wall the spray-painted words “eat the rich,” a refrain I hear with more and more regularity today. This tip of McQueen’s hand exposes one of the great concerns of the film: class and racial solidarity. Within the walls of Mangrove, food is a link, to culture and to community. Lilting conversations and song fill the restaurant’s space; there is a beauty in just watching Black people being. But this assured handling inevitably falls by the wayside. The predictability in both form and function of the courtroom version of Mangrove is buttressed by the urgency of its message about police brutality and the way Blackness is hemmed in by a white patriarchal society and by the sincerity with which the actors play it. Sincerity, of course, can only go so far.

Some of the performances don’t work as well. Namely, Sandall as Barbara Reese, who seems incapable of articulating the breadth of her character’s anger; instead of a rich display of the emotion, she comes across as a caricature. Wright has the right energy for her role but not the precision necessary to fully inhabit it. The white cops — including Spruell’s turn as PC Pulley — adequately let loose the lascivious qualities of racists, who find pleasure in enacting their prejudices. Consider the gripping scene — the camera looking out through the police-car windows — in which the cops chase down a Black man who was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. But Spruell’s performance also reveals the trickiness of portraying racism on film. It’s ludicrous and horrifying, but set to film, it can often feel arch, too.

For the past eight months, I have been fervently, frequently, fantastically daydreaming. I’ve been daydreaming about trapezing into a crisp, velvet night full of the ecstasy of possibility. I’ve been daydreaming about the eternity held in a first kiss. I’ve been daydreaming about dancing to Japanese disco on a hothouse dance floor surrounded by friends, our hands stretched toward the ceiling. What this all comes down to — every wish, every gesture — is a desire for the kind of connection a FaceTime call or Zoom session can’t bridge. Perhaps this is why Lovers Rock thrilled me so. Languid in rhythm and charged in style, it shirks heavy plot for mood. The story doesn’t so much follow Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young Jamaican-British woman who meets up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to attend a Saturday house party, as it uses her as a thread around which McQueen can wind his story. She sparks with Franklyn (Micheal Ward), forgetting her friend as their romance blooms on the dance floor, as they wind their waists to the same beat and share a heated make-out session within the auto shop where he works, before returning home — her room touched with emblems of her Christian faith — just before her mother bangs on the door, reminding her to get ready for church. It isn’t so much what happens but how it happens.

Thanks to McQueen and his collaborators, including cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, Lovers Rock unfurls and envelopes. It is one of the most stunning evocations of the pleasure of a party I’ve witnessed in film. The lighting is like liquid amber. The color palette is full of jewel tones that glint with gorgeous reverence against the mostly dark-skinned cast. The costume design by Lisa Duncan and Jacqueline Durran is packed with eye-catching wide lapels, jauntily positioned hats, wildly bright patterns. I’m especially fond of the blood-red dress on birthday dame, Cynthia (Ellis George). There’s an impressive shot near the very end, with the newly minted couple on Franklyn’s bicycle. But we don’t see the bicycle. We only hear its familiar jangle of metal. As the camera tracks the lovers, they look like how fresh love feels: they’re flying.

There are two pivotal moments when whiteness interrupts the pleasures of Lovers Rock. But they are minor reminders of the concessions these characters must make. Instead of Mangrove’s interest in the racism Black folks face, it is blissfully intrigued with the beauty and communion Black folks experience among one another. McQueen has an eye and ear for the intimate details of Black life. A friendly hand working a hot comb. The prosaic grace of women cooking goat curry and ackee and saltfish. The tender treatment of vinyl records interrupted only by the patois of the DJ’s voice. The film’s soundtrack is full of bangers. One of the best sequences is when the dance floor erupts in an a cappella rendition of “Silly Games,” by Janet Kay. McQueen’s camera is loose and reverent, swooning between the bright faces and bodies of the cast. It is, in a word, electric. There are moments when the party sours at the edges, like when Martha comes across a man raping Cynthia, which Martha doesn’t hesitate to stop, going so far as to threaten the throat of the perpetrator. It is a testament to McQueen, Kirchner, and the actors that this turn in the film fits in rather than sets the story off its track.

It would be easy to judge Mangrove, and even Lovers Rock, along the axes of authenticity and representation. But those are limiting yardsticks for cinema and our understanding of Black identity. Who cares simply for realism when you can capture the soul of a people and an experience? Who cares simply for the paltry gains of representation when you can get lost in a piece of art for how it moves aesthetically and moves you emotionally? Small Axe — especially the triumphant Lovers Rock — represents the kind of movies that slip underneath your skin and take hold of your heart. They represent the beauty of cinema as a form, not just in what it can reflect about the Black experience but the rapture that comes when we bare our souls enough to connect to the world around us.

Mangrove and Lovers Rock are available to stream on Prime Video. The three remaining Small Axe films will be released in December.

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Small Axe Is a Revelation