In his new BBC series, Small Axe, Steve McQueen has pushed the boundaries of Black representation on television in many ways but casting two black leads in the romance story Lovers Rock is one of the clearest.
"It would start with a touch at the elbow," says Steve McQueen in conversation with academic Paul Gilroy. "Then you'd move down the forearm to the hand and if she clasped, you knew you had a dance." It's not something that happens much any more but the lost art of "begging a dance" is revived as part of the second film in the Small Axe series.
Thanks to all the dancing, singing and early '80s party vibe, Lovers Rock has been described as the most light-hearted of the five film series. But this shouldn't detract from the main elephant in the room: it's a love story with two Black leads. Even more startling is that they are young, relatively carefree and there isn't a shackle in sight.
Lovers Rock invites us to party with Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) at a blues – the standard set-up for young Black people who found themselves locked out of white nightclubs. With a small entrance fee and food on offer, it gave them the chance to lose themselves for the night and, if they were lucky, find a partner. It's not necessarily on Martha's agenda but when she meets Franklyn (Micheal Ward), they click.
The idea of starring in a romantic film, and a Black one at that, came as something of a surprise to star St Aubyn, albeit a nice one. "That's what touched me the most – that I am a lead in a love story," she said during an exclusive interview with Digital Spy. "Growing up, and during my training, I never thought I'd be a lead in a love story. I thought I'd be the annoying best friend, or the maid, or have one line," she says.
Given the abundance of romance in Black music, it's weird to consider how little it's translated on to screen. Black love has been propping up love songs since the dawn of time. From Billie Holiday and Barry White to Beyoncé, Kendrick, Rihanna and Drake, some of the soppiest, most heartfelt love songs have floated from the mouths of Black artists.
But only in recent times have films like Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk even been given a mainstream look in. In the '90s, Black romances, predominantly featuring Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs and Nia Long, made some inroads but they were specifically aimed at Black audiences.
Boringly, and predictably, evidence strongly suggests that racism and money are the main reasons why Black lovers don't make it to our screens. One study found that Hollywood was opting for lighter-skinned actors in order to appeal to international markets, but others put it down to experience.
White readers have often told Black romance writer, Beverly Jenkins, that they just can't relate to Black characters – which is rubbish, she says: "You can relate to shapeshifters, you can relate to vampires, you can relate to werewolves but you can't relate to a story written by and about Black Americans?"
What stands out about Lovers Rock, after you get over the shock of them both being Black, is that they are just characters who happen to be Black, dealing with universal things. In this case it's love and although it's occurring in the sweaty confines of an old school blues party, where the air is thick with smoke and the scent of curried mutton, it's still love.
None of this would have been possible without onscreen chemistry, though. St Aubyn says that she clicked with her co-star, Micheal Ward, straight away, which was handy, especially when she read for the part. McQueen, she says, sat with his eyes closed, just listening to the voices. "They had me and Michael there and we had chemistry from the start," she says.
And that's what makes it work. "It shows a love story in the '80s," says St Aubyn. "We get butterflies, we feel all the same things that teenagers do." The only difference, however, is that it happens while experiencing racism.
Small Axe airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One, and will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer around the same time.
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