Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is the first of a five-part series called Small Axe, an anthology exploring London’s West Indian community through the late 1960s to mid-1980s. Its purpose is simple, to make viewers more aware of the struggles faced by immigrants, especially those in a post-Windrush era, in obtaining equality. These are delicate histories, national histories, and histories that need to be portrayed in the right way for this is one we were never taught at school nor would be at the fore of a majority of the British population. So, for the next few weeks, be prepared to be taken on a journey.
Mangrove follows the story of the Mangrove Nine’s landmark Old Bailey trial. The story, for those who aren’t familiar, is as follows: in 1968, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill called The Mangrove. Crichlow’s place soon became a hub for the immigrant community that had grown up in West London since the Windrush era, and was also where the young Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and the British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) went to write pamphlets and hold meetings. The restaurant, as a result, became subject to racial harassment by the Metropolitan police where 12 raids took place between 1969-1970. This inspired a reaction on 9th August 1970, where 150 people marched in solidarity, which resulted in the arrest of the Nine for riot and affray.
Mangrove’s cast animates their characters with vivid humanity, reminding us of the story’s real-life origin. In Parkes’ performance, we not only see a man wrestling with frustration, apathy and desire for justice as his business is threatened, we feel his turmoil too. When police violently barge into his establishment on multiple occasions and scare customers away, he swings between outrage and hopelessness as his complaints to his MP and the embassy go unanswered. Crichlow’s fight for justice is eerily reminiscent of author Toni Morrison’s words about racism, and how its function is to distract: “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
The film’s attention to detail makes Mangrove a visceral experience. The set design, costumes, and music transport the audience back to 1960s West London with ease. We are treated to scenes of a young Notting Hill carnival celebration, complete with melodious steel drums and dancing in the street against the grey backdrop of London’s skies. Even in its time warp, the cultural shorthand of Mangrove is still familiar. McQueen (12 Years a Slave) also strikes the post-colonial tone, unequivocally portraying Britain as a nation still adjusting to a Commonwealth.
Wright (Black Panther) and Kirby (Black Mirror) are stand out performers. Wright, who deals with the intersectional context of being a Black woman, demonstrates to audiences her ability to deal with the complex layers of her character. Kirby’s performance is seamless in demonstrating his unwavering commitment to racial justice – especially in his closing statement in the trial where he devotes the case of the Mangrove Nine as one that will change public perception of social injustice.
Mangrove is a story about big and small triumphs. It’s about small signs leading to significant changes, a tiny community making an unforgettable impact and little moments with overwhelming meaning. By reenacting these unexamined parts of British history, Mangrove revives the story for a broader audience who can undoubtedly draw parallels between 1968 and today’s racial injustice. It shows us times have changed, but not everything has changed with it. The signs still exist today, but the timeliness of Mangrove’s release suggests we’ve still got more looking to do.
Image Credit: The MovieDB