A lot has changed since the last time Steve McQueen came to New York Film Festival.
The director played the fest seven years ago, when his harrowing “12 Years a Slave” made a pit stop at NYFF on its way to a best picture Oscar.
But as he brings his “Small Axe” anthology to the event this year, it won’t be accompanied by any of the usual sold-out screenings in Lincoln Center or lavish parties at Tavern on the Green. Instead, an installment of the series, “Lovers Rock,” will open the festival Thursday night with drive-in screenings in Brooklyn and Queens, and screen simultaneously online.
“It’s quite emotional,” McQueen said of returning to the fest amid the coronavirus pandemic, at a virtual news conference Thursday morning. “I’m just extremely humbled that we can participate in presenting our film during this time, and having some sort of an idea of a celebration with ‘Lovers Rock’ as (the opening night selection).”
“Lovers Rock” is the first of five films in the “Small Axe” anthology, streaming on Amazon Prime later this year. Two more installments – “Red, White and Blue” with John Boyega (“Star Wars”) and “Mangrove” with Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) – will premiere at NYFF in the coming weeks.
The roughly hour-long film is named for lovers rock, a romantic reggae subgenre that emerged from London in the 1970s. The ’80s-set story takes place almost entirely at a crowded house party, where members of the Black West Indian community come together to dance, socialize and couple up. As a DJ spins dub and reggae music late into the night, relationships play out on and off the dance floor, some sultry and sweet, others more tempestuous and troubling.
The music-driven film was inspired in part by McQueen’s own experience attending these sorts of gatherings, also known as “blues parties,” as both a young person and with his parents, who are of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. British actors Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who star in “Lovers Rock,” both have Jamaican heritage and could understand their characters’ need to find safe Black spaces where they could celebrate their culture and feel free to be authentically themselves.
“In terms of research, a lot of it was speaking my mum,” St. Aubyn says. “My mom came here from Jamaica when she was 9, so it was a lot of my mom’s truth, my auntie’s truth, that can be so relatable, because a lot of people have experienced this in London.”
The series as a whole is about “this journey of our existence as Black British people,” McQueen says. “I wanted to tell these stories, which have made us who we are today; stories that have been swept underneath the carpet.”
The “Small Axe” anthology is dedicated to George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose death earlier this summer sparked mass protests against police brutality.
“So much has gone on in these six months of our lives, and at some point, we have to stop and think,” McQueen says. “I wish George Floyd was here today, but what I can say is that he didn’t die in vain. These films are part of a narrative of being a Black person in this world. And I’m just grateful that we get the opportunity to put these films out in these (difficult) times we’re in. It’s a good time to reflect on who we are and where we want to go, because I’m done. I’m really done. I want to talk about who we can be rather than who we are right now.”