Is Lover’s Rock Oversexualized?
During a recent ZOOM chat with friends, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed Lover’s Rock, episode two of Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s examination of ex-pat West Indian life in England. I was both surprised and confused to discover that the film had been met with some backlash. I understand the reasons, however, I think they’re misguided.
Although I grew up in Canada, the scenario in Lover’s Rock (whose name comes from a British musical genre) felt familiar to me: young people of Caribbean descent attend a house party where young men and women meet and dance, sometimes in ways their parents would deplore, while either inhaling or actively smoking weed. I neither did rub-a-dub nor smoked ganja (honestly!), but I was “in the room where it happened” once or twice. In addition, the ending of Lover’s Rock reminded me of the times I was obligated to go to church no matter when I dragged in the night before. The movie has a very limited plot; mainly, McQueen captures the liberation music can provide, especially with no parents or White people in the room to judge the proceedings. I appreciated that he acknowledged the potential hazards of making sexual attraction the main basis of an interaction. That said, would there be Tinder if such a thing weren’t normal, particularly among the young?
Which is why the comments about oversexualization confused me. On one hand, racists all over the globe have portrayed Black men as rapists who would prey indiscriminately on innocent White women if not held in check, and Black women as wanton seductresses. But as Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning amply demonstrates, trying to present ourselves in a particular way to refute these sorts of distortions never works. Besides, the complaint used to be that Black characters in movies were asexual. It’s impossible to have it both ways. For the record, nobody in the movie has sex. There was a lot of grinding later in the film, as the partygoers began to pair off (Dirty Dancing, anyone?). I know my mom would never want to see me doing anything like that, but, as mentioned, it was all very realistic, and normal: the music and steps were culturally specific, but the idea of full-body contact with someone you don’t know very well, isn’t.
Why did people find Lover’s Rock problematic?
Was the movie seen as a bad example for young Black people? If so, it should be noted that the film is only one of a set of five portraits of different aspects of the West Indian experience in the U.K. I didn’t get a sense that the characters in Lover’s Rock were representing an ideal, but even if they were, can’t we just tell stories without making every character a paragon of virtue? And, like I said, these characters seemed like normal people in their upper teens and lower twenties. Not everyone behaves that way, but their behavior was hardly unusual, whether the critics want to admit that or not.
Maybe the complaints had to do with White people getting the wrong idea about who Black are. The thing is, McQueen doesn’t care what they think. The West Indian accents and dialects are often thick, with no subtitles, because he made Small Axe for the British West Indian community, and nobody else, in an attempt to fill a huge hole in the canon. Having seen all five films, I’m quite certain Steve McQueen understands that trying to convince White people you’re who you think they want you to be is both a full-time job and a losing game. Either way, artists should be able to tell their stories as they see fit. Of course, the audience can then react as it sees fit. I’m not trying to silence the critics; I’m just saying that they’re wrong, in this case.
For the record, though, I do find the focus on Lover’s Rock conspicuous. I get that it’s perhaps the easiest part of Small Axe for most people to absorb, since institutional racism is relegated to the background, but that doesn’t necessarily make the other four episodes (which always include joyful celebrations) less worthy of attention. Three of the stories are about real people and incidents, each of them a reminder that the oppression of Black people is hardly unique to America. The last one, Education, another fictional slice of life, was my favorite, because it brimmed with possibility. Why hasn’t it been singled out? Could be due to the media’s embrace of the stereotypes the people who disliked Lover’s Rock decry. The thing is, that has nothing to do with either movie. Both stories deserve to be told. My hope is that the word of mouth on the final chapter of Small Axe will spread throughout the community to which the entire series of films is directed. Because all of the chapters build towards the call to action in the final film.