London Film Festival 2020
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) loves the unique and diverse West Indian culture of Notting Hill. To celebrate and give back to his community, as well as settle down after owning a raucous bar, he has opened a West Indian restaurant named the Mangrove. This is much to the chagrin of racist Police Officer PC Palmer (Sam Spruell) — emboldened by the ethno-nationalist babbling of Enoch Powell, including his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech, he dedicates his life’s work to making Crichlow’s a living hell.
The police here are nothing less than gang members with a state-sanctioned uniform, constantly raiding the Mangrove on random suspicions; totally “legal”, but morally reprehensible. Crichlow doesn’t want to get involved, but he becomes activated by his victimization. Spurred on by Trini lawyer Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Black Panther member and trade union organizer Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright), he organizes a protest against police brutality. Yet in scenes reminiscent of Black Lives Matter protests, the peaceful march soon turns violent as the police use excessive force. Based on a true story between 1968 and 1970, Mangrove details how nine of them fight for their freedom in a forgotten slice of vital Black British history.
There is so much richness in detail here, celebrating West Indian, and more specifically, Trinidadian culture. From the quoting of the great soca bard Mighty Sparrow, to the fresh dishes of roti, to the use of slang like the elastic term “liming” to mean hanging out, drinking, or going for a walk on the town, to the steel band performances to the pitch-perfect accents, the beauty, and magic of Trini culture is firmly established in the first half of the movie. This focus before the upsetting scenes start to give an emotional attachment to these characters, letting us know exactly what is under attack.
The second half of the film is dedicated almost entirely to courtroom drama, as the Mangrove Nine are indicted in the Old Bailey — a court usually reserved for serious crimes such as murder, treason, and terrorism — on charges of rioting and affray. Even here, where a lot of courtroom films can devolve into filmed plays, director Steve McQueen uses music-video-like visuals to highlight certain details and keep the action dynamic, proving once again why he is one of the most accomplished film stylists around.
The film may be set 50 years ago, but the lessons on offer here are still yet to be learned within the UK. The twin tragedies of the Windrush Scandal — in which countless British citizens were deported to Jamaica — and the Grenfell Tower fire remind us that the struggle for people of colour is far from over. While Mangrove could’ve dialed back some of the speeches — which become slightly repetitious — and a husband-wife subplot, this is cinema with a searing moral clarity, a call to arms to continuously work for a better world.
How exciting it is that this is only the first installment in Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology Small Axe, which will tell more stories of West Indian communities between the 1960s and 80s. If the rest of the films are as good as this, then we are in for a real treat!