When I went to London for the first time, I thought it was Jamaica. As a nine-year-old born and raised on the Caribbean island, I thought of the UK in terms of what I’d seen on TV and read in the literature books set in Britain that were part of my primary school curriculum—as a place that was grey-scale and rainy, inhabited by funny accents like the one my now-British father had, and a truly foreign chilly climate. My father, also a born and raised Jamaican, was living there, which occasioned my visit.
It turned out that this place which was situated literally across the world from where I lived was more colorful and familiar than I had imagined (though even colder). Most of what I remember from this trip came back vividly as I watched Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” the second installment of his anthology film series Small Axe, which focuses in on the story of the Caribbean people who made England their home. The film brought back for me how effectively these transplants were able to stake their flag in a powerhouse country which for centuries had colonized the nations in the Caribbean they came from, like Jamaica.
The opening scene of the film licked me with that same sense of joyful recognition I had as a little girl who’d landed in England, stunned to hear Jamaican patois expressed just as sharply and authentically by people there as it was by those back home. The film kicks off with British-based actors Kadeem Ramsay, Romario Simpson, and Alexander James-Blake talking to each other in pitch-perfect Jamaican accents while maneuvering furniture out of a house in preparation for a party, signaling that Lovers Rock will be richly populated with sounds and visuals that reflect the aforementioned authenticity. As the men chat, women gather and sing in a kitchen while kneading flour for dumplings and chopping up onions, tomato, and thyme to cook up a rich curry goat that I could almost smell from memory.
Of course, Jamaican music is seminal to the film, which is named after that sub-genre of reggae concerned with giving couples something to slowly “wine” to. The recognizable bass drop under tracks sung by crooning reggae greats like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs underscore the prevalence of Jamaican music wherever people who appreciate good music are present. The inclusion of Barry Biggs’ one-drop cover of American singer Eddie Holman’s “Hey There, Lonely Girl” also emphasized for me the power of Black people’s musical creations, not just specifically Jamaican ones, to engender connections—whether between two people slow wining at a party or among those from different branches of the Black diaspora, in this case, the U.S., UK, and Jamaica. The pleasure I got watching Lovers Rock came from witnessing a beautifully realized cinematographic telling of the deeply rooted connections that keep Black people living and loving, no matter where in the world we are and whatever hostility may be aimed at us.
Despite looming dangers like the threat of street violence from a group of white British men targeting lead character Martha (played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), or the reality of intra-community violence when one of the Jamaican men at the party hovers over women with a hollow charm that turns malevolent pretty quickly, the film shows the exuberance of a people bringing their whole selves—and all that makes them feel at home—to a place where their joy cannot be sidelined, at least not for long. Jamaican-born, BAFTA Rising Star award-winning actor Michael Ward, who stars as Franklyn in the film, captures this brilliant synchronicity in his role. “Nuh bada get irate,” he says to St. Aubyn’s character at one point (roughly translated to “don’t get angry”), and as the words roll off his tongue you understand fully why Martha would give him more than one dance.
Dancing is one of the most evocative features in the film, not least of all because in 2020 you’d be hard-pressed to experience the kind of group abandon captured in this recreation of Caribbean people at a house party in the UK in the 1980s. Afros, dreads, and hips swing as weed smoke floats above bodies moving along with each other, instinctually feeling some of the very best parts of being a human: budding love, good music, and that ineffable energy that comes when people are gathered together in joy.
As the modern-day UK government pushes hostile policies aimed at rejecting and ejecting darker-skinned migrants from countries it plumbed for years for capital and cultural enrichment, Lovers Rock is a lush reminder that Black people bloom wherever we transplant ourselves—come what may.