In a year that has been (and continues to be) seriously concerning for cinema, we have to take the wins when we get them, and audiences being treated to five films from Steve McQueen (one of Britain’s finest filmmakers, and the brilliant creative mind behind Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is one very big win. Small Axe, an anthology series comprising of several feature films depicting real-life racial injustice towards London’s West Indian community between 1969 and 1982, is coming to the BBC in November, and if Mangrove is anything to go by, that’s a special thing indeed.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, has become something of an accidental and reluctant leader, his business having become a safe haven for his community, with many civil rights activists frequently spending time there. The restaurant’s significance in the area hasn’t gone unnoticed, and bullish PC Pulley regularly orders raids based on false allegations and zero evidence. His reasoning? To put ‘the blacks’ in their place and drive them out.
Crichlow, along with many of his patrons, has grown frustrated with the constant harassment and decides to hold a non-violent demonstration in protest, but the involvement of the police soon exacerbates things, and nine of the demonstrators (now referred to as the Mangrove Nine) are charged with incitement to riot. McQueen’s film tells the story not only of the incident itself, but of the long and arduous trial that followed. It’s a film of two halves; first an infuriating tale of police brutality, before becoming an outstanding courtroom drama wrought with rage and passion.
It’s surprising how little-known the story of the Mangrove Nine is, given it made national headlines at the time and is widely recognised as the first trial in which the judge acknowledged, however loosely, the clear racially-driven prejudice within the Metropolitan Police. It was a huge step, and it’s one that deserves to be remembered and respected. McQueen is a filmmaker born to tell important stories, and his interpretation of it is just magnificent.
McQueen continues to be a master behind the camera. He knows when to utilise it fully and when to let it linger, the latter being a signature aspect of his work, and one that he uses effectively in Mangrove on several occasions (a long look at Crichlow’s face in the courtroom is particularly memorable). He’s able to properly communicate emotions with his work better than most filmmakers working today; a subtle artist unafraid to push buttons when necessary.
Where McQueen most excels is his positive depiction of the culture itself. While the film mostly roars with fury (the content resonating with anyone paying attention to the current political climate), the community atmosphere in and around the restaurant is always portrayed as happy and warm. At one point, McQueen lingers on a colourful street carnival just long enough for us to feel a part of it, the dancing and singing at its utmost joyous and wonderful. It’s brilliant moments such as this that help attach the audience to the characters; it’s why we care about them so damn much. It’s a community worth defending.
The characters are brought to life by a talented cast at the top of their game, particularly scene-stealer Letitia Wright, whose powerful monologues radiate with both anger and fear. Malachi Kirby is also exceptional, fully coming to life in his courtroom sequences, and Shaun Parkes’ quiet and reserved performance as Crichlow is another highlight. He expertly portrays a man who has had any faith in the system beaten out of him, but is equally afraid of fighting it for fear of having that very system take everything away. He’s a hard-working man who just wants to be respected.
Mangrove is about serious issues, but it’s far from miserable. If anything, it’s quite the opposite; a film that is fully aware of our past and present failings, but equally optimistic about the progress we can make, so long as brave, intelligent people are willing to speak up.
It’s powerful, emotive and expertly-crafted by an artist operating at the peak of his powers. It speaks volumes for the talents of McQueen that Mangrove, undoubtedly one of the year’s best films, is just one episode of an anthology series. For any other filmmaker, this would comfortably be their stand-out work. For McQueen? Hmm. It still might be.
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