With the Black Lives Matter movement spurred this year by another wave of police brutality against African Americans, Steve McQueen’s blisteringly powerful, viscerally topical drama reminds us of the UK’s own torrid record in that regard, by returning to a true story that is, thankfully, as inspiring as it is appalling.
Mangrove is the first of five films the director has made under the banner Small Axe, each telling a different story involving London’s West Indian community, between the late Sixties and the mid-Eighties. This concerns the seminal trial of the Mangrove Nine, in 1970. In the dock, not just the residents of Notting Hill spuriously charged with riot and affray, but the British system of so-called justice that put them there.
It opens in 1968, as Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes, below) prepares for the opening of his new restaurant, the Mangrove. As a swooping camera follows Frank through the West London streets, it doesn’t reveal the gentrified area made famous by the romantic comedy of Notting Hill, but one that’s multi-cultural and decidedly down at heel. The elevated Westway is still being constructed; graffiti on one slab of concrete reads “Powell for PM”, referring to the MP Enoch Powell, whose infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech was also made in 1968 – these three words telling us exactly where we are in terms of British race relations.
There’s a brief period of optimism, as Trinidad-born Frank’s aim to provide “spicy” food, only, to the locals quickly draws in the crowds. Unfortunately, it also attracts the attention of PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), a rampant racist who sets out to destroy both the Mangrove and its proprietor. Raid after unjustified raid on the restaurant ensues, accompanied by violence. Frank complains to his MP and the Home Office to no avail. Finally his activist friends, including British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) persuade him to join a peaceful demonstration against the harassment, which the police response doesn’t allow to remain peaceful for long.
McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons structure the film in two almost equal halves: the events leading to the trial, followed by the 11-week hearing at the Old Bailey, a court usually reserved for murderers, rapists and terrorists. If you happen not to know the outcome, resist the urge to Google.
The director has been in similar territory before, of course, with his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. With this kind of material McQueen is a dab hand at making the blood boil and the pulse race, through myriad emotions – righteous indignation, horror, sadness, respect for those determined to defend themselves.
Importantly, he never forgets the value of nuanced characterisation; here, the accused have doubts, show flaws, fight amongst themselves about how to approach the trial. Frank wants nothing to do with politics, protesting that the Mangrove “is a restaurant, not a battleground.” His friends see that what he’s actually created is a vital hub for his community. Parkes, Wright and Kirby all excel as their characters passionately articulate their differences and the wider significance of their struggle.]
It’s vividly shot in grainy 35mm, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s mobile camerawork combining with terrific production and costume design to bring the period and milieu to life. And McQueen employs typically left-field visual details to raise the emotional temperature: a colander left rocking after a raid, the reflection of a man and his megaphone on a rain-lashed car bonnet, Frank raging in his cell, repeating the cry “you wicked man” at a brutal guard, while incongruously, heartbreakingly bathed in sunlight.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk