Director Steve McQueen applies his distinctive visual style to a story of resistance within a vibrant London community.
Long before it was the setting of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant’s romantic hijinks, London’s Notting Hill neighborhood was home to a large and diverse community of Black immigrants from the West Indies. Hailing from British-controlled Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and The Bahamas, the so-called Windrush Generation settled in England in the post-war period and quickly established themselves in what was at the time a lower-class district of London. In spite of racial discrimination and police harassment these African-Caribbean immigrants cultivated a thriving and vibrant community in the heart of London during the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. It is that cultural vibrancy and endurance in the face of institutional racism that director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Hunger) highlights in his new five-film anthology Small Axe, produced by the BBC and distributed, one film per week, on Amazon Prime in America.
The Caribbean sounds, colors, and sense of community are immediately apparent in the series’ premiere film Mangrove, named for a restaurant and cultural hub in Notting Hill in the late 60s. Shabier Kirchner’s warm, grainy cinematography mirrors the faded photos pinned behind the bar of this restaurant that only serves “spicy food for people who like that kind of thing.” In addition to the goat curry and rotis, the Mangrove provides a sense of togetherness for a group of people thousands of miles from their place of origin, who traded a tropical climate for temperate England — a country that can feel cold to them in more ways than just the weather. Kirchner’s immersive handheld camera and a stellar soundtrack of reggae and calypso music invite the viewer to share in the good vibes generated by this close-knit community.
At the heart of this gathering space is the restaurant’s owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a man with a simple desire to run a legitimate business and a naïve faith that the English governmental system will provide him with justice. Frank is not overtly political like the young resistance leaders and intellectuals who frequent the Mangrove, yet his restaurant’s status as a de facto community center has put him in the middle of a larger fight for equality, for which he becomes a reluctant leader.
Despite Crichlow’s efforts to re-create a peaceful corner of the Caribbean in a small storefront on All Saints Road, the Mangrove is subject to repeated, frivolous police raids run by a sadistic police constable known only as “PC Pulley”, played here by Sam Spruell with all the arrogant self-assurance of a man who knows his authority insulates him from consequences. The timeline of these early scenes is difficult to follow, as McQueen frequently cuts away from the main story at the Mangrove to check in with the marital tension between activists and intellectuals Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall). In a longer film this storyline may have been worthwhile to explore, but as it is the characters never get much more than the most basic characterization and as such their inclusion only serves to clutter up the plot and make the timeline feel disjointed. The heart of the story lies in the contrast between Crichlow’s reluctant resistance and the impassioned drive for justice of British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones, played by a scenery-chewing Letita Wright.
After appeals to an uncaring government bureaucracy fail, Jones convinces Crichlow to participate in a peaceful march in protest of police brutality. When the situation becomes heated after police officers block the marchers’ path, Crichlow, Jones, Howe, and Beese are arrested and charged with five others — the “Mangrove 9” — for “incitement of a riot,” a charge that could mean decades of jail time.
As one might expect, the discrimination does not end at the courtroom entrance. Confronted with a reactionary judge and a mostly-white jury, it becomes clear that a traditional defense will not save the group from a prison sentence. Their only hope, then, is to use the trial as a platform to highlight the racism inherent in the system. “They want to pretend this is a case about violence, about criminals,” Howe says, “but we have made it about what it is: about the color of our skin.”
McQueen’s talent as a visual storyteller lies in his patient attention to detail, and some of the most powerful scenes in Mangrove are not of actors but of objects. Black Caribbean activists and revolutionaries peer out from pictures hanging on the restaurant’s walls as if to remind its patrons of their ongoing struggle for equality. The passage of time is marked by archival photos of the construction of a freeway through the neighborhood — a reminder of how governments discriminate against Black communities in ways that go beyond racist policing. The film’s most affecting scene is a long, sustained shot of a metal colander rolling on the floor after a raid, the silence offering stark contrast to the chaos of the preceding scene.
The film’s visual realism, however, is often at odds with McQueen’s penchant for melodrama, and nowhere is this more apparent than Letita Wright’s scenery-chewing performance as Altheia Jones. Jones is the kind of character who knows she’s in a movie, and the film’s otherwise grounded scenes are often soured by the delivery of the resistance leader’s overbearing sermons. Wright’s showy speechifying is contrasted by a beautifully tempered performance from Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow. Parkes portrays Crichlow as a man who simply wants to live in peace in his adopted home but is pushed to the breaking point by the thousand cuts of a racist establishment.
Mangrove will likely be compared to this year’s other big activism drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 given the shared themes of peaceful protest, police brutality, and a rigged trial system. But Mangrove feels more of-the-moment because of its focus on Black defendants on trial for their protest of institutional racism. The film’s one white ally character — activist lawyer Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden) — is only ever positioned as a supporting character, and McQueen makes it clear that this is above all a story about Black lives. As Chicago 7’s only Black character reminds us, the legal struggles of a group of white men is starkly different “from a rope on a tree,” and Mangrove is a visually striking portrait of Black resistance in a community often overlooked by history.
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