Set over one heady night, Steve McQueen’s second instalment in the Small Axe series is a beautiful follow-up to, and dance partner for, series opener Mangrove.
We follow a young woman (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) sneaking out of her bedroom window in summer darkness, meeting her friend to take the bus to a house party. Meanwhile, at the venue, one of those large London houses, divvied into a few flats, with a communal pay phone in the hallway, carpets are being rolled up, sofas moved into the garden, cooking prepared in a kitchen and a sound system set up in the main room.
As soon as the music starts, the party is underway, with some disco, some formation Kung Fu Fighting, and then the whole place is swaying and singing to Janet Kay’s Silly Games. It feels like you’re there, in the room, hitting that high note with them all, a communal, spiritual experience.
And like a party, there are stories going on, on the dance floor, on the stairs, in the garden, outside, at the door, behind the decks, everywhere – girls are meeting boys, some more dangerous than others, and flirting is happening. Our girl Martha is being charmed by handsome Frank (Micheal Ward) and their hips unite to Silly Games, sensual, cool, sexy. The viewer joins in, carried away on a tide of sounds and pungent smoke – in this lockdown, it’s the best night out you can possibly hope for.
As in Mangrove, McQueen is masterfully controlled here, setting up the characters with a clear-eyed purpose, happy to drift on the music but always knowing where this film is going, what these characters, these actors will do, what mischief, what moves, what looks they’ll give, right to the film’s punchline at the end. The performances, note perfect, including the wonderful accents which use London slang and Caribbean patois, mixing up the heritage, usually in the same sentence.
Later, the party gets heavier, dubbier. The drunk guys, the rude boys take over the floor and it gets tense and intense to Kunta Kinte. A fight is coming, you feel. Someone took someone else’s drink, a bottle of Mackeson. Someone has a knife.
Maybe not. Maybe our lovers can rise above it, soar like the morning birds. Light is creeping in. Time to creep home.
Fabulous, breathless, beautiful, like a dream.