Powerful, immediate, well-observed, and endlessly relevant, Mangrove is a triumphant success.
Small Axe: Mangrove is the first of a planned five films by Steve McQueen that will be airing on the BBC.
The first of a planned five films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove is a damn fine mission statement. These films, which are airing on the BBC in Britain and on Amazon Prime everywhere else, are designed to explore London’s West Indian community and culture from the 1960s through to the ‘80s, and Mangrove is an endlessly relevant and stirringly impassioned opening salvo.
Comparisons with Aaron Sorkin’s recent Netflix drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 are, perhaps, unavoidable, and not only because of the closeness in release date. But McQueen’s grounded and well-observed efforts here are fiercer, less verbose and bombastic, less – for want of a better term – Hollywood. The Mangrove Nine might have been similarly-titled as a collective, but their landmark case, which marked a turning point in British judicial history, feels much truer to life in its depiction.
The Mangrove Nine are so-called thanks to their participation in a peaceful protest against racial harassment committed by the Metropolitan Police against Trinidadian restauranteur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in London’s Notting Hill during the late ’60s. Police, in response, hijacked the protest and ending up charging the protestors with incitement to riot. All were eventually acquitted by trial judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), who also, albeit backhandedly, officially acknowledged racial hatred on the part of the Met, giving the case its lasting significance.
This is all brought to life with fantastically well-observed production design and buoyed by performances that wouldn’t brim with more righteous energy had the case occurred last week. This, I suppose, is testament to how relevant matters of racial prejudice, systemic disenfranchisement and institutional bullying and brutality really are, even today. The film’s anger is palpable. But its complex characterisation – Crichlow, in particular, is depicted as a man keen for a fresh start after a ropey past, as prone to outbursts and bad decisions as he is to celebrate the successes of his new venture – stops it from tipping over into preachy melodrama. Supporting performances, the most notable being Letitia Wright as trade union organiser Atheia Jones-LeCointe, give a rounded and even-handed portrait of West London and its warring perspectives.
But to return briefly to comparisons with Sorkin’s latest effort, what mostly sets Mangrove apart is that it’s a much more British film, in many different ways. It’s specific to Black British culture, sure, but it’s also rife with British attitudes, pomp, and dreary officialdom. The establishment is much too stuffy for Sorkin’s chatty to-and-fro. Somehow, that only makes the overall effect more powerful, more immediate, and more lasting.