A West Indian proverb holds, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” “Lovers Rock,” the first film made available of Steve McQueen’s Amazon miniseries “Small Axe,” first interpreted the saying as a metaphor for the joyous spirit in the Black British community. But his newest installment, “Mangrove” swings a different emphasis on the rebellious phrase. Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) owns the Mangrove, a new restaurant located in Notting Hill. At all hours of the day, he serves mutton, goat, and fish curry. Or as Frank simply puts, they serve spicy food for a particular palette.
A budding West Indian institution, rough winds are swirling not only around the restaurant, but also the Black Notting Hill community. Here, racist constables like PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) and Dixon (Joseph Quinn) prey upon Black Brits. They target Trinidadian activists Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) — who’s lightly sketched as the didactic loud Black women, one of the film’s rare missteps — Black Panther member Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and Frank. But when British law enforcement’s unrelenting restaurant raids take their toll on the neighborhood, a revolution sparks, and a court battle ensues that actually puts the system on trial. Set in 1968, and based on a true story, Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” is an uplifting courtroom drama that shows the unity and self-empowerment of a little known Black collective fighting for autonomy and justice.
“Mangrove,” is often an examination of the institutionalized grooming that fuels prejudiced policing. For instance, there’s a card game, where if an officer draws an ace of spades, then they’re required to arrest the first Black person they see. The free use of racist terms like “savages” and “black bastards” further instills the era’s bigotry. The film is also the rare depiction of the Black Panther Party’s influence — its manta of self-movement — permeating beyond American shores. The Notting Hill protests led by the party, features Jones-LeCointe standing high among the multitude strongly shouting “Black Power” while the crowd exclaims, “Hands off! Black people!” It’s the first subversive act in a film filled with many.
In these scenes, it’s difficult not to compare “Mangrove” with another recently released protest film “Trial of the Chicago 7.” While the latter aimed for Hollywood blockbuster fireworks, the former followed restraint under McQueen’s watchful cinematic eye. “Mangrove” understands the messy spontaneity inherent in any protest. For instance, during the Notting Hill revolt, the director subtly depicts the protesters’ resolve descending into dizzying disorder upon the constables’ threats of violence. One shot, in particular, a camera fixed behind a blue siren on the hood of a police car, surveys the chaos.
As with “Lovers Rock,” McQueen lovingly composes the unity of this London West Indies community through song (I desperately need a “Small Axe” playlist) and dance. The restaurant’s opening night celebration abounds with vibrantly dressed customers and employees bopping in the streets. At a later carnival, the camera bounces between a steel drum band, meat cooking on a grill, and a colorful assortment of people partying. At every turn, in the early going, McQueen shows the mirth that runs through the very nature of expressing one’s culture. He furthers this by dramatically juxtaposing the colorful interior of the Mangrove — its cozy gold and maroon painted walls textured by splashes of palm tree stenciled wallpaper — with the austere stone walls of the Old Bailey courthouse. The former expresses vitality while the latter, where the nine defendants are on trial for inciting a riot, exemplifies governmental intimidation.
“Mangrove” continues the coming-out party that began in “Lovers Rock” for cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. The DP somehow elevates McQueen’s acumen for brilliant visuals into some of the most unique compositions, like the shot of Jones-LeCointe’s reflection upon the rainwater, of the director’s career. The pair also sharpen the visceral through exacting closeups. In one shot, after a harrowing verbal confrontation with judge Edward Clarke (a maddingly bureaucratic Alex Jennings), the nine defendants re-enter their break room. Rather than physically showing them walking into the space, McQueen and Kirchner settle their camera at floor level, allowing the scuffling of chairs to intimate tension.
In the courtroom, McQueen and screenwriting partner Alastair Siddons deliberately spotlight Darcus and Jones-LeCointe’s self-representing cross-examinations, while limiting the involvement of the group’s white barrister Ian McDowell (Jack Lowden). These courtroom scenes feed into the story’s theme of self-determination. McQueen also uses the stuffy formality of the British court system to dramatic effect. During Darcus’ cross-examination of PC Pulley, one where Kirchner’s close-ups show Pulley’s thumb nervously scratching the witness stand or his two hands tensely clenched behind his back, ratchets upward with each of Darcus’ tightly constructed queries.
McQueen and Siddons also never paint Frank as something he isn’t. Frank is an unwilling hero, a man unaware of how the small act of his restaurant giving Black folks a place to sit, talk, and exchange views loom large. It’s a sign of how the filmmaker’s incredible restraint, and his eye for compositions, varies greatly from something like the ‘Chicago 7.’ Because, in most period pieces, Frank would have been gussied up into a consciously powerful revolutionary.
But in this story — where he sleeps with white women, gambles, and of the nine, comes the closest to giving up, he’s complex and flawed. When Jones-LeCointe confronts Frank regarding the possibility of taking a plea deal, both Wright and Parkes’ acting erupts. Jones-LeCointe’s cathartic plea to Frank that they fight for future generations of Black people, by taking a stand here, mixes the film’s raw use of 35 mm and her impassioned voice, to fulfill the promise Wright showed in “Black Panther.” It’s a tear-soaked statement that Wright is absolutely a dynamic lead actress, hire her.
The film’s culmination, the trial’s verdict, once again finds McQueen and Kirchner identifying the emotional focal point and allowing the events to swirl around it. In this case, it’s Parkes taking center stage. And as the camera assuredly zooms in on him, the muscles beneath his cheeks, his brow, and his eyes barely suppress the deluge of tears waiting to spring. It’s not just an actor reacting to the moment, it’s Parkes putting the scene on his back, and carrying us into the heart of the affair. “Mangrove” is rebellion. “Mangrove” is liberation. McQueen’s “Mangrove,” in its every personal minute, is love and devotion, not just to the now, or even the past, but for the progress of Black generations yet to come. [A-]