One Big Sweaty, Gorgeous Party*
New York magazine|November 23 - December 6, 2020
How Steve McQueen and his cast and crew created the year’s most unforgettable movie scene.
Hunter Harris

SOME NIGHTS just unfurl before you. There’s the getting- ready phase, face crooked in the mirror, smearing on eye shadow or blush. Should I wear this shoe or that shoe? There’s the last-minute adjustment, a nervous fretting and fussing over the glittering look, and a rushing out the door. Who all’s gonna be there? The loose energy of a crowded party draws you in with the anticipation of shimmying up close to someone’s ear or sipping something pleasantly strong. There’s a momentum to this type of night out, the way one song pushes into the next, pulls you to the center of the room. There’s an amorous mood, like anything could happen, like something good certainly will. Remember going out? Remember nights so radiant, so alive with wanting, you could float home on their afterglow?

Lovers Rock, the second installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film anthology, is about one such night in 1980, when a few dozen Black Londoners congregate at a house party to hold each other close and sway and thrash and grind. On paper, the film is a dreamy series of party scenes; onscreen, it’s a passionate, restless achievement. Love, frustration, togetherness are communicated in small gestures and details—a gently horny ass grab, a yearning gaze from across the room, a delightfully chaotic line for the bathroom. The rest of the Small Axe films feature racist cops, racist bosses, racist courts. Lovers Rock shows what happens when white people aren’t looking—the rapture in Black joy, experienced privately.

And it climaxes with what may very well be the year’s greatest scene: The party moves from rollicking to romantic, couples moving in languid, sexy sways to the reggae love tune “Silly Games.” The moment glistens with sweat from all the full-bodied desire in the room. But as the music begins to fade, the packed space makes a wordless agreement to extend this feeling: People sing, a cappella, the opening verse again: “I’ve been wanting you / For so long, it’s a shame / Oh, baby.” The party feels alive, its dancers buzzing with the thrill of the ordinary. “Every time I hear your name / Oh, the pain / Boy, how it hurts me inside.”

McQueen’s camera drifts from the main couple to the other faces, the other waists, the other elbows. We’re privy not to a crowd but to a congregation. They’re singing like it’s a hymn.

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