The first film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet gets the series off to a dazzling start.
The news that director Steve McQueen was developing a series with the BBC about London’s West Indian community was announced almost seven years ago, just weeks before Twelve Years a Slave’s (2013) triumph at the 86th Academy Awards. The project has been in gestation even longer – about eleven years – and now that it is finally arriving on our screens, it is easy to see why. The scope of Small Axe is enormous: five feature-length films, telling five real-life stories from across several decades of British history, all directed and co-written by McQueen. It is some undertaking. Happily, scope has not come at the expense of quality. Mangrove is a superlative achievement.
If you are not familiar with the story of the Mangrove Nine (I wasn’t), here are the basics: the year is 1968 and Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) has just opened a restaurant for people of ‘a particular palette’ at the heart of Notting Hill’s Caribbean community. An immediate hit with the locals, the place soon becomes a key meeting place for the Black Panther Party, as led by Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). It also, inevitably, becomes a target for the police, who imagine that anywhere with so concentrated a black population must be a cesspit of immorality and sedition, and the place is raided countless times.
There is only so much of this Frank and his patrons can take and, on 9 August 1970, they lead a peaceful march to the local police station to protest their treatment. When they get there, they find the police armed and spoiling for a fight. Violence breaks out, for which the nine leaders of the protest are naturally blamed and indicted, resulting in a long and very public court case at the Old Bailey.
I won’t tell you the result of that case, but if I tell you the film is ultimately uplifting, you can probably guess. It’s only uplifting, though, because of the hardship endured; McQueen never soft-pedals any of the violence, racism, or psychological torment inflicted on the Mangrove Nine. Nor does he let the Nine themselves off: Frank, Altheia, Darcus, and the rest of them are all beautifully flawed people, each with their own personal demons. One of McQueen’s methods for getting at these demons is his signature long takes, which mercilessly probe their subjects until neither they (nor we) can bear it.
Luckily, the cast can bear it; they all do a fantastic job. The standout, however, is undoubtedly Parkes. Torn between a desire for the quiet life and the knowledge that such a life is impossible unless he takes action, Frank is the most conflicted of the Nine, even considering pleading guilty at one point, just to be done with the trial. His conflict all takes place internally, too, so Parkes has to convey it all through expression and body language: it is a great performance.
The portrayals of the police are less nuanced. Early on, we are introduced to a new recruit who is clearly uncomfortable at his colleagues’ overt racism, but then we never meet him again. It’s a missed trick: the character would have been a great lens through which to explore how toxic cultures like this are perpetuated.
Even so, I never once doubted the credibility of the film’s storytelling. Its world feels lived-in: from the cut of people’s clothes to the reggae on their record players.
Indeed, Notting Hill’s West Indian community is wonderfully evoked, and somewhere you might like to live were it not for the harassment. It’s just a wonder the story hasn’t been dramatised before. All the elements were there in the history books – landmark trial, underdog narrative – for someone to put it on screen. Well, I’m glad McQueen has finally done it and it is coming out now; in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the story has more relevance than ever. Which leads me to my one major issue with Mangrove: it’s set the bar very high for the rest of the series! Still, I have high hopes.
Featured image: YouTube
Last modified: 23rd November 2020