Let’s be clear: We in the Western world are sadly lacking in movies — in all manner of stories intended for mainstream appeal and wide audiences — about nonwhite people. Yet we’re still full up on stories about Black people being oppressed. I mean, yes, of course, we do need to tell stories of oppression, particularly from the perspectives of those impacted, but oppression is hardly the totality of Black lives.
So thank goodness for Steve McQueen — Black, British, and badass, with no fucks to give — who has seemingly decided, if the first two films in his new series Small Axe are anything to go by, that Black joy can absolutely be celebrated alongside a raging against Black oppression. That Black joy is a thing that cannot — that has not — be killed by Black oppression. That Black joy is, sometimes, created in response to oppression. It’s half “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger,” and half– well, no, it might be all that.
(Of the Small Axe series, I have so far seen only this film and the next, Lovers Rock, review asap. I will be very curious to see if the joy-in-the-face-of-persecution motif continues across all five movies, which will debut weekly now through Christmas.)
(Oh, and “Small Axe” is a reference to a Bob Marley song, and in general alludes to the efforts of individuals to bring down a “big tree” of institutional cruelty and injustice. Power to the people!)
Mangrove is the true story of a landmark moment for the civil-rights movement in Britain that I was not previously aware of, which is perhaps not surprising since I am American, and white, and not deeply steeped in Black British culture. But it’s also apparently an event that is not well known in (white) British culture either, which is shameful.
In the very late 1960s, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes: The Fight, Urban Hymn) opens a restaurant called Mangrove, to serve his fellow Caribbean immigrants. (This is in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London, which is not yet hip and happening, with gentrification and Hugh Grant pining after Julia Roberts still several decades away.) Mangrove is more than a place to grab some spicy food: it’s also a local gathering spot, a hub for relaxing community, and also for artists and writers, intellectuals and activists. Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright: Avengers: Endgame, Ready Player One), a leader in the British Black Panthers, hangs out there, as does racial-justice campaigner Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby: Doctor Who, Dough). There’s a lot of warmth and happiness here: a scene early on takes us to a street party outside Mangrove, full of steel drum music that makes you want to jump up and dance, and luscious food you can almost taste, and people having a wonderful time. It is pure exhilaration, and McQueen (Widows, Shame) brings us right into the midst of it in what is one of the most glorious moments of cinema this year.
Perhaps that’s part of what causes the appallingly bigoted piece of shit Police Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Legend) to turn his rage on Mangrove: he’s a miserable bastard, and cannot stand to see such jubilation. I would have guessed that Pulley here is an amalgam of horrible Metropolitan police officers, but no, it seems that the real Pulley was actually as awful a person as he is depicted, an older cop who hasn’t been able to get a promotion off the beat, who is upset that “the Black man” doesn’t “know his place” in British society, and appears to be redirecting his resentment against those he thinks it is his place to lord over. He leads junior officers in a series of random raids on the restaurant that is straight-up terrorism by cops on honest citizens… and McQueen lingers on the aftereffects of this, too. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera keeps quiet and still on a colander rolling on the Mangrove kitchen floor after yet another violent attack by the police, a small horror of shattered domesticity.
Things escalate. In August 1970, a small march to the local police station protesting the raids ends with a group that will come to be called the Mangrove Nine — including Crichlow, Jones-LeCointe, and Howe — arrested for inciting a riot, a charge that looks, of course, wholly unjustified. And so Mangrove morphs into a courtroom drama, and a delicious one it is, too: McQueen, writing with Alastair Siddons (Tomb Raider), squeezes so much juice out of the proceedings, skewering hidebound proceedings, turning the tables on Pulley and holding up his racism and his literally incredible testimony for ridicule, even showing how a white ally with insider knowledge — as the Nine have in one of their lawyers, Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden: Fighting with My Family, Mary Queen of Scots) — can help overcome a system that is “rigged.”
As a white person, I cannot even begin to truly appreciate the representation at work in Mangrove, which extends to behind-the-scenes as well: McQueen strove to find Black crew whenever he could. But when Jones-LeCointe insists that, for their trial, “we mustn’t be victims but protagonists of our stories” (and they succeed at that), it’s a beautiful encapsulation of what we see here. The cast is magnificent, their performances exquisite. Black perspectives — plural — abound. Not everyone is, or wants to be, a determined activist! (Crichlow simply wants to be left alone to run his restaurant in peace.) Not everyone’s Black experience is the same! (Rochenda Sandall [Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker] has so many zingy moments as Barbara Beese, Howe’s romantic partner and one of the Nine, particularly in trying to get him to understand the differences between men’s and women’s lives, and between the racism faced by immigrants and that faced by native-born mixed race Brits, like her.)
Mangrove is a triumph for McQueen. He has brought to life what could have been a dry history lesson and made it sing with zest and passion, with a spirit that endures beyond the strife. It’s a magnificent testament to the Mangrove Nine, one long overdue.
first viewed during the mostly virtual 64th BFI London Film Festival, in pandemic year 2020