On Amazon Prime, there is a series of films by Steve McQueen under the title Small Axe; they are related in that they are based on the real-life experiences of London’s West Indian community in the recent past. Mangrove is the first film in the series. The Oscars and the Emmys are perhaps more invested in hashing out whether they are technically films or episodes or something else entirely, but at 2 hours and 7 minutes of first-rate film-making, I’m just going to go ahead and review it.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is the proud (Black) owner of Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, a lively community base for locals, intellectuals and activists, not to mention the best joint for anyone looking for spicy foods in the 1970s. But it’s also beleaguered by constant police raids in what can only be described as a reign of racist terror (the cops are pretty upfront about it actually). Frank and the local community fight back the only way they can, by taking to the streets in peaceful protest. The cops, of course, strike back in what is by now such a familiar pattern that we can only despair. When nine men and women, including Frank and the leader of the British Black Panther Movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are arrested and charged with incitement to riot, our blood boils with injustice but not particularly with surprise. A highly publicized trial ensues, and the pattern of discrimination and abuse by police emerges – but will that even be enough?
As I mentioned earlier, Mangrove along with the other films in the Small Axe series are based on true events, but director McQueen manages such vigour in his story-telling that it almost feels more like a documentary. The authenticity seems to lend itself so naturally to the film and the performances that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches, but it’s the passion and the commitment with which it is delivered that really seals the deal. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 really reinvigorated the courtroom drama for me earlier this year, so it seems improbable that this one would come along so shortly after and do so again, yet I’m amazed to be so fully invested once again in a genre that’s been tired and limp for so long. Sean and I kept up such a constant hubbub that I worried mean Judge Clarke (Alex Jennings)would find us in contempt and throw us out of his court. Mangrove, however, has its own internal engine, churning with emotional heft outside the courtroom. The movie may take a few beats to really get going, but once it finds its momentum, it is downright riveting.