‘Small Axe’: MANGROVE (2020)

small axe - mangrove (2020)
Mangrove tells this true story of The Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970. The trial that followed was the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police.
5 out of 5 stars

Mangrove opens in 1968, with Trinidadian entrepreneur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parks) at her Mangrove café. Located on All Saints Street in London, the establishment was constantly targeted by white authorities who despised what it represented to the local black community.

Produced as part of Steve McQueen’s (Widows) ambitious five-film anthology, entitled Small Axe, all these films are centred on the experiences of London’s West Indian community from the late-1960s to the mid-1980s.

The first section of Mangrove is dedicated to exploring the abysmal treatment of London West Indians at the hands of the police. Frank’s stoic attitude means he wants to be apolitical but struggles, and his kitchen soon becomes a sanctuary for some of London’s brightest minds and activists. The Notting Hill of this era is captured in bright flashes of colour, a lively reggae soundtrack, and jubilant street parties. The textures of Mangrove are incredibly evocative, captured on 35mm film by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (Skate Kitchen). But it’s the feeling of the communal bond, forged in the face of constant discrimination, that glues this film together.

’80s Notting Hill looks nothing like the gentrified area we know today. Through clever angles and CGI set extensions, production designer Helen Scott and cinematographer Kirchner perfectly replicate London’s once less than desirable neighbourhood. With few options available to Western Indians, and Caribbean communities, they found affordable housing in the area and created a space of their own.

After relentless police raids, led by slimy police officer Frank Pulley (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Sam Spruell), Crichlow joins forces with Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). Frank and his fellow cops are portrayed as bullies and McQueen chooses not to investigate the systematic culture they come from. They’re infuriating characters and sometimes difficult to watch, especially when they pick a card to decide which cop is going to arrest the first black man they see. McQueen is smart to keep the worst offences off-camera, with lingering shots of kitchen wear being knocked to the floor during a raid.

After one raid too many, Crichlow and Jones-LeCointe team up to organise a protest march through the capital’s streets. But the protest soon devolves into chaos, with 150 marchers running up against 300 police officers. But Mangrove doesn’t linger on the violence and protesting as it’s not that type of film. Instead, it follower the eleven-week trial of the Mangrove Nine, which include broadcaster Darcus Howe (Root’s Malachi Kirby) and his partner Barbara Beese (Line of Duty’s Rochenda Sandall), who were arrested on baseless charges of inciting violence. Two of the defendants decide to defend themselves, instead of being represented by white lawyers, apart from one who hires a white attorney called Ian MacDonald (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden). 

The case unfolds slow enough to savour, but not so quick that audiences will miss a vital plot point. Unlike Aaron Sorkin, McQueen is more focused on the details. He lingers over the archaic legal traditions that indicate black defendants have no chance in a courtroom. It becomes increasingly clear that the raids and trumped-up charges of “riot and affray” are meant to disempower a community slowly finding their voice. Mangrove is a thriller courtroom drama that breaks all the rules of the genre.

The screenplay, written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons (Tomb Raider), never rushes the setup or the climax. It never feels like a long eleven-week trial crammed into 45-minutes. The rigid old judge (The Crown’s Alex Jennings) shows a lack of empathy towards the nine and their community, but it never glosses over the crimes on either side, depicting the provocations of the police and the Mangrove visitors (include a pig’s head being paraded around the protest).

A film so subtle in its storytelling is only as strong as its cast. Malachi Kirby is composed yet strong as Howe, and Sandall is upright and suitably angry as Barbara Beese, but it’s Letitia Wright (Black Panther) who sells this story. She’s charismatic, cheeky, strong, and forceful. Llewella Gideon (The Real McCoy) is also a standout as the formidable yet lovable Aunt Betty, the restaurant’s cook and Frank’s sparring partner. Those performances are passionate and heartfelt, a far cry from the buttoned-up roles we’re used to seeing in courtroom dramas. There’s more than one award-winning performance in Mangrove.

Mangrove is an extraordinary film that’ll stick with you long after the credits. Steve McQueen has the amazing ability to tell little-known stories from the past that resonate for 21st-century audiences.

UK | 2020 | 124 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH

london film festival 2020
frame rated divider bbc

Cast & Crew

director: Steve McQueen.
writers: Steve McQueen & Alastair Siddons.
starring: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Gershwyn Eustace Jnr, Gary Beadle, Jack Lowden, Alex Jennings, Llewella Gideon, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell & Jumayn Hunter.

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