Starring Jack Lowden, Letitia Wright, Samuel West, Jodhi May. Directed by Steve McQueen.
We are in the middle of Black History Month, and as such there is a discussion going about how much, or rather how little, our schools are teaching about the history of racial bias within the British system. Enter Steve McQueen, Turner prize-winning artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker with his anthology of films under the Small Axe banner — the name refers to the Bob Marley proverb If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
Mangrove follows the story of the Mangrove 9, nine people from the West Indian community of Notting Hill who frequented the Mangrove Restaurant owned by Frank Crichlow, and the 1969 court case when they were tried for rioting.
Having made political biopic, TV adaptation, a historical epic and a human drama, it seems only natural that McQueen would now turn to look at a time that influenced his own childhood. The director has always been able to give his films a sense of space, and of place, be it the claustrophobia of a prison cell in Hunger or the desolate expanse of rural America in 12 Years a Slave. Here, we feel the community of Notting Hill; we understand that this is a place where the vibrant West Indian community get together at Frank’s restaurant, to enjoy food from their home country.
As the racist police — spurred on by the Rivers of Blood speech by infamous racist Enoch Powell — continue to harass the patrons, and more important Crichlow himself, it becomes clear that the community will never truly be free so long as racism is the order of the day. McQueen makes clear that this isn’t a piece of stuffy history; swap some of the older-style clothes for modern ones and Powell’s speech for any number of Nigel Farage rhetorics and we could be looking at footage from 2020.
After all, Letitia Wright’s Althea Jones-Lecointe is part of the driving force of the Black Panther movement in London, and along with Malachi Kirby’s Darcus Howe they seek to stop racism in its tracks. The scenes of a protest becoming a riot incited by the police are no different than any piece of news footage from this year alone. Things haven’t changed, and it’s clearly important to McQueen and company that we realise this.
All of this, and the subsequent trial which calls to mind Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father would be incredibly heavy, and it is still, but it’s made easier to digest by the superb performances. Wright, who has been spending most of her time doing bit parts and living in Marvel land, makes good on the promise of that Emmy nomination with a leading turn here. She is strong-willed, and determined, but brings nuance and emotion to the role. To see a young actress embody a movement and to really get something to do reminds you that McQueen plucked Lupita Nyong’o from nowhere and gave her that star-making turn as Patsy. Here Wright is just as charismatic as she was in her Wakandan princess mode, but with an edge.
Similarly, Shaun Parkes is restrained but moving as Crichlow. A scene holding solely on Parkes’ face as information is given out is still enough — a favourite technique of McQueen’s — to show you just how much work is going on with Parkes’ performance. He is absolutely transfixing in his role, and through him you can see why the Mangrove became the central hub of a community.
The use of ska music also gives the film a feeling of time and place; for anyone who grew up in, or visited, Notting Hill, the portrayal of the music scene and the strong sense of culture that the Carnival each year can really show off will no doubt evoke strong memories. McQueen picks his songs deliberately and well, and none of the choices feel like stunt music, it tells the story as well as the images do.
The film then is about the gulf between the ideals of what Britain should be, and what Britain is in practice. It reminds us that we are a richer country when we embrace change, and other cultures, when we build a third culture by combining two. McQueen here shows a love of Britain’s potential, but a distaste for it’s uglier qualities. He’s not wrong.