Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby
My grandfather was a policeman and lifelong Tory. By the time I knew him as an old man he was defined in my eyes, sadly, as an alcoholic and a racist. So racist that he was even racist in his sleep. I was a child and he was an incredibly angry-seeming man. My memories of his visits amount to endurance. I knew to disregard his biases, his rants. I was ashamed of them and of myself for being a scared little boy who didn’t want to stand up to them. I’m not particularly proud of bringing this up here, but the point is that from this secondhand experience, I know how rooted in the British constabulary racism is, or can be. I remember his stories.
I’m fortunate that I came to understand this from such a privileged remove. The first film in Steve McQueen’s vital Small Axe series – currently being broadcast weekly on the BBC and available on iPlayer thereafter – dives headlong into this hotbed of prejudices, focusing on the West Indian community living in Notting Hill in the late ’60s, backed into a corner by the unreasonable actions of the local police force.
The film couldn’t be more timely. We all witnessed the Black Lives Matters protests throughout the summer here and abroad. Some of us participated in them. These demonstrations – along with the events that triggered them – acted as a stark reminder that progress has moved too slowly, and that systemic racism is a continuing threat to liberty and life.
The sad truth, however, is that this is not merely relevant now, this year, but has been an ongoing battle, ‘relevant’ at all times since the events depicted here in Mangrove. Shaun Parkes portrays Frank Critchlow; a restaurateur trying to maintain a business tied very specifically to West Indies tradition. The Mangrove of the title is a cultural hub within the community – something which bitterly-entrenched bobby PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) will not tolerate. The first 30 minutes of Mangrove is some bad road, as we’re subjected – like Frank – to repeat raids of his business. Brutality and vandalism at the hands of those who are supposed to protect.
Weary of having his rights violated, Frank agrees to stage a march, prodded into action by the politically energised Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). The ensuing protest – which McQueen captures with the kind of immediacy rarely seen in his work, more often characterised by its detached scrutiny – devolves into violence, provoked and instigated by the police response. Nine men and women are arrested and charged with rioting, including Frank and Darcus. From here Mangrove pivots to courtroom drama, documenting the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey.
The obvious recent comparison for Mangrove is Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. McQueen’s work reveals the staid blandness and egotistical pomp of Sorkin’s film. Courtroom drama is a tricky proposition because we’ve seen it so often, and the possibilities for creating newness or intensity within the framework are rather narrow. McQueen doesn’t reinvent the thing, but his is the most engaged and finely realised of recent times. With all nine defendants squeezed into the dock like children in the fist of a giant, he is able to visually express the feeling of being impinged within a system that is inherently pressing against you.
And then, then there are the performances he draws from his actors. Parkes’ Frank is outspoken and expressive in the film’s first half, but he hunkers down for the trial and barely speaks. Yet this change in demeanor is expressive in and of itself, inviting us to understand the feeling of being oppressed. The tightness in the shoulders. A late scene of Frank smoking the dogends of a rolled cigarette while waiting for the verdict silently speaks volumes.
On the other end of the scale, Kirby shines as the impassioned and articulate Darcus. Representing himself – as several of the defendants do – his closing speech is one for the ages. Similarly, Letitia Wright becomes a voice-box for such righteous indignation as Black Panthers representative Altheia Jones; another of the defendants speaking for herself within a framework that would rather she kept quiet.
McQueen’s work is almost always defined by its oppressive seriousness, and that remains true here, yet there is levity which he weaponises against the system. He takes time to observe the ridiculous pomp of the British judiciary system, focusing on the wigs worn by the judge and the attorneys. When Darcus is told to remove his ‘ridiculous’ beanie, the hypocrisy and absurdism in the statement lands as its own joke. There’s also a very satisfying glee to be had – and encouraged by McQueen – in watching these men and women counter and outwit their prosecutors, defying the assumptions that have been lazily made of them.
Mangrove is a traditional-feeling drama but it also feels important, not only in terms of how it represents a pivotal moment in British justice, but in its representation of West Indies culture as part of British culture. The first half of the picture features a lot of terror, but it also celebrates the joy of the Notting Hill community and the specificity of the cultural identity therein. I’ve not seen the remainder of the Small Axe strand. I’ll visit them as they air over these five weeks but, based on this ‘start’, its hard not to imagine them standing together as a milestone in British filmmaking and a crucial step forward in representation and recognition of the diversity our cinema can be capable of. This is a very fine drama elevated by this sense of potential.