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Single scene in ‘Lovers Rock’ is Oscar worthy

Dan Webster

Above: "Lovers Rocks" is an episode in "Small Axe," a series directed by Steve McQueen. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

We’re approaching the time of year when critics are releasing their “best of” lists. My “Movies 101” partners and I will be doing the same sometime in the coming weeks.

For now, though, I want to talk about one of the best movies scenes I’ve seen all year.

It comes about midway through “Lovers Rock,” the second of five films that British filmmaker Steve McQueen is releasing under the collective title of “Small Axe.”

That title, by the way, comes from a proverb that Bob Marley included in his song, also titled “Small Axe.” The relative lyrics are:

“So if you are the big tree,

We are the small axe

Ready to cut you down.”

All five episodes of “Small Axe” concern the experiences of black citizens living in Britain, the first “Mangrove” being set in 1970 and “Lovers Rock” about a decade later.

I’ll review the whole series once I’ve seen the other three. But for now, I want to talk about my favorite scene.

“Lovers Rock,” which is barely 70 minutes long, plays like one long music video. With hardly any real dialogue, and with only a bare narrative line, it centers on a party at which a group of young blacks – mostly of West Indian heritage – dance and flirt, with a sense of menace ever present, to music that speaks to them all.

That music ranges from love ballads to reggae to something such as the testosterone-heavy song “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas.

My favorite scene, though, is one that occurs while McQueen has the party DJs play the 1979 Janet Kay song "Silly Games."

Considered a standard of the lover’s rock genre, which was popular in the U.K. at the time, “Silly Games” is all about a young woman bemoaning the fact that a guy she’s interested in, and who she knows is interested in her, keep eyeing each other but do nothing about it.

She sings, “Every time we meet, we play hide and seek,” and then she ends with the line, “I've got no time to play your silly games.”

As the song plays, McQueen has his cast slow everything down. The couples slow dance, and McQueen’s camera closes in on our protagonist couple, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), as they move together so sensuously it’s as if they’re making love with their clothes on.

But it doesn’t end there. Once the music stops, the partygoers as a group start singing the song on their own, a capella. It’s clear they know the lyrics by heart, men and women, and at least one of the women is able to hit the high note that composer Dennis Bovell intentionally included.

It’s a powerful moment of group fusion, of a statement of momentary togetherness – all of them bound into one, if only for a night, as a defense against a white world that doesn’t really want them around.

McQueen was nominated for a Best Director Oscar in 2014 for his film “12 Years a Slave.”

He deserves another for this single scene in “Lovers Rock” alone. 

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