Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen & Alistair Siddons
Stars: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Sam Spurrell
By Calum Cooper
Steve McQueen has one of the most impressive resumes of any working British filmmaker. The man skillfully and consistently conveys enthralling, hard-hitting messages via the most visceral of filmmaking ability. “Shame” (2011) tapped into the devastating effects of addiction with unparalleled voyeurism, and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) still ranks among the most brutally direct exposures of evil practices. His previous film, “Widows” (2018), opened the 62nd London Film Festival, and opening this year’s festival is an entry into his upcoming anthology series, “Small Axe” (2020).
“Mangrove” (2020) tells the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of people who, I’m ashamed to say, I knew nothing of prior to watching this film. Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes) is a popular Londoner who runs the Mangrove, a Carribean-themed restaurant in the late 1960s. With the words “Black Ownership” on the very window, his restaurant has become a popular place for London’s black community. It’s as pleasant and safe an environment as one could want.
But the Mangrove comes under attack from the Metropolitan police, who lead vicious attacks against Frank and his customers. These attacks become so frequent that members of the British Black Panther movement, led by Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), get involved, organising a protest. This protest turns violent after police instigation, leading to a trial for Frank, Altheia, and seven others, becoming the Mangrove Nine. The rest of the film becomes a courtroom drama, but the whole story portrays these people’s quest for justice.
“In refusing to sugarcoat his themes, harkening back to the same emotional sucker punches “12 Years a Slave” threw, McQueen has made an intense biopic that simultaneously sparks fury and hope.”
There have been many contemporary movies on the state of police brutality in America, be it “Fruitvale Station” (2013), “Blindspotting” (2018), or “Queen & Slim” (2019). But I struggle to think of a film outside of this one that tackles Britain’s own systemic racism within its police force. The UK has accounts just as heinous as America’s, but they feel glossed over by comparison. This may be because, as a country, we seem to prefer sweeping issues under the rug rather than acknowledging them. Try asking a boomer about the empire or colonialism and see what happens.
McQueen created “Small Axe” to bring attention to the many experiences of black people in Britain. With “Mangrove”, the first of five films lined up in this mini-series, he does so with singular empathy and command of craft. In refusing to sugarcoat his themes, harkening back to the same emotional sucker punches “12 Years a Slave” threw, McQueen has made an intense biopic that simultaneously sparks fury and hope.
This is because, at its core, this is a film on the power of community. Frank initially sees the Mangrove as only a restaurant – a means for him to make a living like any other person. But Aletheia, and others put on trial, like Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), recognise the Mangrove as something so much more. It is a place where black people can meet, converse, laugh and share stories, not just eat. It is the purest idea of a safe space. Although each of the Mangrove Nine are at different phases in life, with different priorities and viewpoints, they are all united in wishing to live a peaceful existence – something the Mangrove symbolises to them.
Contrasting this is the rambunctious nature of the oppression they face. McQueen refuses to reign in the brutality nor the frequency of which Frank and the black community are harassed or attacked. Lingering shots and careful use of music only elevate the shock and horror of what we are watching. And these characters are not pushovers either. Frank exchanges more than his fair share of words with the police whenever they raid, while Altheia is a leading figure in the Black Panthers. They are tough people, which makes seeing them constantly have to put on brave faces all the more devastating. The camera acts as a set of eyes to the injustice on display. The police who instigate their suffering are led by PC Pulley (Sam Spurrell), a relentlessly disgusting figure whose very sneer is enough to boil one’s blood.
“Mangrove” triumphs because of the humanity woven into its fabric. Show this film to any number of people and they would probably all have a different favourite character.”
But “Mangrove” recognises that people like Pulley are merely a symptom of the problem. Early scenes show police officers initiating one another by going out and beating the first black person they see, creating more products of prejudice. When the film shifts to the courtroom, it pulls back the curtain to show just how crooked the system is. This is not solely a fight against a police force, but against a network designed to keep marginalised voices silenced. McQueen and co-writer Alistair Siddon’s electric dialogue eloquently conveys this through the arguments put forward by its characters. Statements from the defendants, such as Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), beautifully pick apart every hole in the police’s story, while simultaneously revealing the scale of the corruption. McQueen’s direction only further enhances this. Perhaps my favourite shot of the film was one right outside the courtroom. A line of police cars are parked outside, but all of them are parked incorrectly, taking up more than one space. What a great and horrifying way to convey the attitude of “one rule for them and another for us”.
“Mangrove” triumphs because of the humanity woven into its fabric. Show this film to any number of people and they would probably all have a different favourite character. Yet all these wonderful characters, and their shared interactions and hardships, encompass an important ideal: that solidarity can overcome anything. The script, and McQueen’s direction glean gargantuan amounts of emotional resonance to add to this, but the actors are who consistently steal the show. Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, and even Jack Lowden as the defendants’ lawyer all come to mind. But Shaun Parkes completely dazzles as the humble Frank, who must put his business and very principles on the line as his livelihood comes under threat from racism. Layered, authentic, and quietly vulnerable behind a curtain of strength, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
In fact, “Mangrove” may be one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Its refusal to downplay any of its content is quintessential McQueen, but its staunch belief in community over division is what makes it such a captivating viewing experience. If the rest of McQueen’s anthology films are even half as good as “Mangrove”, then we are in for something special. What a way to kick off this year’s London Film Festival!