My first discovery of Director/filmmaker Steve McQueen was the controversial, and profoundly affecting Shame – one of my first film reviewing experiences that I’ve never forgotten, and it’s a creation I’m still in awe of. After that, I caught up with Hunger and have followed his work since with huge anticipation. The likes of 12 Years a Slave and Widows continued his strong work ethic, with stories that always encompass important, human elements.
Mangrove is another part of Black and British culture I didn’t know and after watching, I think we all should. It tells the real-life saga of the Mangrove 9, a small community who were only trying to make a home, but a prejudice Metropolitan Police targeted them with no other good reason than racism. It also focuses on trial that followed a clash with the Police after a protest, and shows us how their case became the first judicial recognition of racially motivated hatred from the force.
McQueen has created Mangrove as part of a wider TV project that’s coming to BBC One, under the umbrella of the ‘Small Axe’ mini-series and it’s an absolute must-watch, with stirring performances and vital reminders of the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter, and those who fight for social justice for minority groups, not only in the UK but everywhere. As a little background, I thought the best person to offer insight on how, and why, this was created, was Steve himself, who had this to say about the project:
The seed of Small Axe was sown 11 years ago, soon after my first film, Hunger. Initially, I had conceived of it as a TV series, but as it developed, I realized these stories had to stand alone as original films yet at the same time be part of a collective. After all, Small Axe refers to a West Indian proverb that means together we are strong. The anthology, anchored in the West Indian experience in London, is a celebration of all that that community has succeeded in achieving against the odds. To me, it is a love letter to Black resilience, triumph, hope, music, joy and love as well as to friendship and family. Oh, and let’s not forget about food too!
I recall each of these stories being told to me either by my parents, my aunt, and by experiencing racial discrimination myself growing up in the 70s and 80s. These are all our stories. I feel personally touched by each and every one of them. My five senses were awoken writing with Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons. Images, smells, textures and old customs came flooding back.
All five films take place between the late 60s and mid 80s. They are just as much a comment on the present moment as they were then. Although they are about the past, they are very much concerned with the present. A commentary on where we were, where we are and where we want to go.
When the Cannes Film Festival selected Mangrove and Lovers Rock earlier this year, I dedicated both to George Floyd and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are in the US, UK and elsewhere. As the proverb goes, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”
The film Mangrove starts us off in Notting Hill, West London in 1968, you can see construction of tower blocks in the distance and also the early build stages of the ‘Westway’, a huge road system that now connects different parts of London. We’re introduced to one of the main leads, Frank Crichlow, played magnificently and with sincerity throughout by Shaun Parkes, a man who opened the Mangrove Restaurant with the aim of serving Caribbean food to the local community. What it became was evidently beyond expectation but in the strongest ways, as it became the fulcrum for people who battled for civil rights, as well as activists, artists and even an early head office for the Notting Hill Carnival.
While the overall story spotlights Frank’s desire to live a ‘normal’ life, without harassment from the Met Police, enough of a community is built from the Mangrove that eventually leads to them rising up and taking the prejudice head on, with official protests and organised rallies. The Met Police portrayed to us are clearly racist and while this might not have been every Officer, it’s obvious there weren’t any systems in place that bothered to try and control those who made up their own rules.
So after numerous targeted raids on Frank’s restaurant and harassment in the streets of young Black youths with random, unsubstantiated arrests – does any of this sound familiar? – people from the Restaurant decided to peacefully demonstrate but during that, the Police fought back and arrested the Black activists. After this, you can guess who got the blame, and it wasn’t those who were supposedly upholding any laws.
A year or so later, the case goes to the Old Bailey and the prosecution feels they have a strong case, which is mainly based on the evidence of a PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), a man who has spent his time falsely accusing people of doing illegal things. People believe him because he’s white, and because he can get away with it. That’s the era we’re in. However, thankfully, the truth will eventually out because he’s not as smart as he thinks he is, and our accused folks choose to rely on facts and believe in justice, a very brave move – especially at the time. We’ll witness powerful, intelligent self-representation in the court room with an absolute killer of a case against the Police lying, and all its shiver-inducing brilliance.
What follows is personal battles over how our individuals feel in their worlds, what they want from them and from each other. McQueen’s film is a heartfelt, must-see insight into the struggle for proven innocence, but through a justice system that didn’t seem to lean towards them, until they started to change it. Feeling like a mix between a drama and a documentary, due to the biographic elements, it’s a compelling watch with solid, meaningful performances from the entire ensemble.
Leading the way throughout is Shaun Parkes, who excels as Frank Crichlow with a depiction so dedicated, you’re with him every step of the way. His conviction of character is immersed in the desperation he’s had to go through but also focused and eager to try and change things for the better. Once again Letitia Wright also stands out as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, a young activist and member of the Black Panther movement, a woman who knows that she must be fearless and my word she is. There must also be mentions for Rochenda Sandall as Barbara Beese and Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe, a couple who have a lot to lose with a young child but also with each other, especially when things get tough but they keep on, they work out what they need to extract the truth and it’s compelling.
Mangrove is an essential film, with comments on self-motivation, why we need public demonstrations and equality. There’s also a reminder that the justice system doesn’t always serve who it should and, so crucially, how progression can happen and how it can be inspired by one person because a single soul can, and does, make a difference, and we must never overlook that.