Film Director and Visual Artist Steve McQueen has been an incredibly busy man as of late. His latest project, a five-film anthology series for the BBC entitled ‘Small Axe’, will premiere mid-November. First announced back in 2014, this anthology explores the experiences of Black Britons. I got the chance to see one of these five, Mangrove, at the London Film Festival.

This is the true story of the ‘Mangrove Nine’. A group of activists who faced off with the Police at the Old Bailey Court in London. Stunningly, it also tells of the first judicial admission of racism in the Metropolitan Police Force. As expected from a director of this caliber, Mangrove delivers as a poignant and sadly overlooked account which McQueen directs in his stylistically delicate, yet powerful nature. A story which is of the highest relevance, still, in 2020.

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The importance of the Notting Hill Carnival to Black African-Caribbeans living in London, and to Black British culture in general, is monumental. It is a celebration and a time where around half a million people can gather annually to dance, drink, and eat. Unfortunately, this year’s events were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to some, this isn’t a huge loss – but Mangrove reminds us to appreciate how historically vital this party is.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Mangrove (1) - highonfilms

Our protagonist Franck Crichlow (portrayed here by Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian figurehead and organizer of the original Notting Hill Carnival, is routinely subjected to drug raids at his restaurant despite the lack of any actual evidence. Sick of this mistreatment, accompanied by 150 citizens, on the 9th August 1970, he marched against the Police in a protest which resulted in Frank, and eight others tried for incitement to riot: the Mangrove Nine.

One thing you’ll notice from McQueen’s work is his sense of visual geography. In Hunger, he presents the shit-smeared walls of a prison cell with a sickly, intimate feel. In Shame, he illustrates the impending horror of a mental breakdown in a quiet, rain-splashed street. McQueen’s signature thumbprint is seen over and over again in Mangrove. A scene that jumps to mind is when the camera lingers on a rolling colander after the events of a police raid. It’s a weirdly long shot, but it cleverly gives the impression of the lasting damage to the community in Notting Hill that the Police’s continued harassment of the Mangrove Restaurant resulted in.

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The performances here are delivered like a clap of roaring thunder, particularly from Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Letitia Wright, and Rochenda Sandall. Their acting stands out as a collective because they strike the perfect tonal balance between intelligent courthouse analytics and bursts of justified emotion. There’s a moment where Barbara Beese (Sandall) stands up furiously in the Old Bailey. In this scene, the Police officers are explaining their supposed “merits” and “honors” given by the Met to the jury. Barbara suddenly lashes out shrieking at the lack of relevance to the situation. It is, maybe, my favorite part of Mangrove because it is so unexpectedly right. Do you know what I mean? It takes you by surprise, and you want to stand up and scream too about how pathetically unfair the ordeal is.

Mangrove is not your everyday courthouse drama. It might not even be McQueen’s most excellent film. It is, however, refreshing to finally see a movie looking at the empowering vision behind current events like the Notting Hill Carnival. You leave the film feeling angry but optimistic and grateful for the work that McQueen put into developing this piece of British History. I’m sure that this, and the rest of the Small Axe anthology, will work as a complementary watch to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’: A read that expunges the supposed ‘theory’ that Britain isn’t, and never was a racist country. Mangrove proves to us that if we brush these events under the rug, we forget these landmarks of racial justice. This was the first I had ever heard of the Mangrove Nine, and I deeply wish it wasn’t.

Mangrove Trailer

Mangrove Links – IMDb

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