British filmmaker Steve McQueen is back with more deception. His new feature Lovers Rock opens the 58th New York Film Festival with an uncharacteristic exhibition of hedonism — West Indian residents in 1980 London throw a recreational Blues Party filled with dancing, singing, and weed-smoking. At first, it seems to be pure pleasure, the kind of celebration McQueen owed the world after the racial horror film 12 Years a Slave. Has McQueen learned to appreciate black people’s joy and survival?
True to form, McQueen’s 72-minute mood piece — recalling the amateur sound-system apparatus and reggae-inflected “toasting” (an emcee’s verbal accompaniment) that are the roots of hip-hop culture — also conveys an undercurrent of anxiety. Yes, although the images and ambience of subculture revelry are mostly intoxicating, there’s also suspicious trepidation at the edges.
That’s because Lovers Rock (named after a genre of reggae) is another McQueen art-feint. He uses Caribbean-immigrant culture conceptually. These blacks are species of sociological difference. None of the sexually diverse cast is a real character; the flirtatious women and libidinous men are all random types aimed at curious, touristy progressives. Lovers Rock continues the New York Film Festival’s late emphasis on racial politics that, since Precious (2009) and The 13th (2015), has been geared to the delectation of Manhattan’s Upper West Side liberals.
McQueen’s reggae safari in Lovers Rock is his first “black film” after his debut with Hunger (NYFF 2008); that’s where McQueen flipped the indie-movie scheme in which white filmmakers get cred by using black subjects. McQueen, instead, was the first black director to calculate the benefits of a white subject by using the Bobby Sands–IRA story as his calling card. And it worked, the conspicuously artful exploitation of British tribal politics, underclass anger, and gruesome violence established McQueen’s bona fides. His films work like the art installations of his early institution-funded museum career, timed to film culture’s shameless establishment of political agitation as a cause. Grant Lives Matter.
Lovers Rock might impress viewers who are unfamiliar with British director Isaac Julien’s Paradise Omeros (2002), an artful exploration of Caribbean immigrants’ cultural conflict that hit an insightful high point with the Paragons’ 1967 recording “The Tide Is High” (a song best known from the cover version by Blondie). McQueen mimics Isaac Julien when three black females sing Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” a mixed-culture stunt. Julien had observed authentic roots while McQueen shrewdly caters to deracination — the better to orient his white patrons.
Several scenes in Lovers Rock are undeniably effective. The first accompanies Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting,” where the revelers emulate its pop novelty. The second is Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” where the women take on the record’s falsetto entreaty and make it their own. The third, expressing the men’s energy, is the film’s most explosive and deliberately threatening.
It starts with a reggae dub sequence in which a violent male’s frustration requires ganja to calm the demon of isolation. This is McQueen’s only show of narrative wit, but note the stereotyping: He uses racial essentialist tropes (dusky masculine dance rites illuminated by a single light bulb), then vents enigmatic spiritualism. “Let go the lion!” shout the scrum of empathetic brothers. It’s like “The Bottle Dance” in Fiddler on the Roof, but this is Rastafarianism — exploited. The black bacchanal in the Wachowskis’ Matrix Revolutions (2003) tendered a similar fantasy combining black sensuality with political prophecy.
McQueen’s phony nostalgia for the pre-hip-hop era when blacks were more culturally unified (“Put a smile on everybody’s face, no frowns!” urges the rotund DJ), inspires this film’s segregated visual scheme. The colorfully dressed partiers waft through a ganja haze, warm hues keyed to a blue-vinyl record placed on the turntable — a Gauguin touch. But these roving tableaux, also borrowed from Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava and Ernie Banks’s cover art for Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album, cannot be entirely trusted. The exoticism satisfies those self-aggrandizing political poseurs who pretend identification with black culture but have hijacked and perverted it in the political world.
On screen, Claire Denis employed black Parisian exoticism without condescension in 35 Shots of Rum, but the exoticism of Lovers Rock is sinister (prelude to an upcoming series of political tracts under the title “Small Axe”). McQueen is the celebrated turncoat revolutionaries used to condemn as a “native informant.”