The opening film of Steve McQueen's pentalogy is a tremendously compelling drama about racial prejudice within the police force and judicial system.
The incredibly talented British director Steve McQueen, most notable for his Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave (2013), is back with a politically driven masterpiece. His latest film Mangrove (2020), which showcased just last month at the BFI London Film Festival as the festival’s opening piece, received its premiere on BBC One this week as the first part of McQueen’s latest work; an anthology five-part series entitled Small Axe.
This compelling drama, based on the lesser-known true story of The Mangrove Nine, has so far blown away audiences with its hard-hitting depiction of racism in agitated 1970s West London. Mangrove explores the real-life trial of The Mangrove Nine who were a group of black British activists unlawfully set to trial for allegedly inciting a full-scale riot involving both the police and the public. The trial made history as the first time in which racially motivated behavior from the police against black individuals had been acknowledged in the judicial world. The event is sadly often lost in historical discussions and therefore McQueen’s captivating representation of the monumental moment in Black Power history is one to both behold and learn.
Lead by the brilliant Shaun Parkes who plays the excitable but struggling Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow, Mangrove depicts the volatile lives of the black community in 1970s Notting Hill. The contrast between peace and violence is curated in a way that captures your attention from the off, as Frank’s Mangrove restaurant is seen to serve as a place of sanctuary for the black individuals struggling to live on measly salaries and unnecessary police harassment. The Notting Hill carnival scene is one which perfectly defines the joyous and beautiful occasion, juxtaposing this with the drab and disrespectful lives of the police officers who threaten to destroy this happiness. The steel pan melodies played by the talented musicians and the colourful clothing of the individuals contrasts greatly with the cold blue walls of the police headquarters as they create a joke out of ‘nicking the next black man’ they see. It is of course extremely difficult to watch the scenes of destruction at the hand of white, racist police officers, however, it is important to understand the power imbalance between the two communities living in one troubled location and this is something which Mangrove does cleverly.
The Black Power movement which instigates the ‘riots’ (aka peaceful protests) of the Mangrove Nine is lead by Altheia Jones-LeCointe (portrayed by the inspiring Letitia Wright). Wright serves an element of dark humour within her performance as Altheia, especially through the impactfully humourous line “If colonialism is good for anything it brought us together on this table”. This really brought me back to the recent argument which resurfaced during the Black Lives Matter movement in April which argued for more teaching about colonial Britain on school curriculums. Perhaps this important story of The Mangrove Nine should be something we are informed about in schools alongside other neglected historical moments.
It is almost half-way through the narrative of the film in which the trial part begins to take full flow. The punishment set upon the Mangrove Nine if they do face prosecution is 10 years imprisonment. The second half of the film is where the emotion seriously starts to build and the anger you feel for Frank and his community begins to come to a head as the over-proportionally white courtroom (excluding the audience and some jury members) begins to display a bountiful amount of racial prejudice. The judge, portrayed by the incredible Alex Jennings (thinking back to his work in Unforgotten gives me the chills) is known amongst the justice system as a bully and a difficult man. The most impactful line which hit me and even made me scream YES at my screen was a line stated by the judge in which he asks the courtroom – “Do you really think police officers would take the risk of making up information to imprison a black man?”
If you do get around to watching Mangrove, which I would highly recommend as both a source of enlightenment and education, be ready to experience a wealth of different emotions – especially when the final verdict comes about. Both the cast and the direction is beautiful, as McQueen manages to make you as the audience member feel as though you are sat in the tense courtroom amongst the Mangrove Nine.
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series continues this Sunday 22nd November on BBC One with Lovers Rock.