Director Steve McQueen delivers another piece of powerhouse cinema with Mangrove, the first of five works from his Small Axe film collection. Chosen to open the 2020 BFI London Film Festival, Mangrove is front and centre at the festival, something which illustrates the importance of this film and McQueen’s voice as a filmmaker. While Mangrove‘s story takes place in the early 1970s, it feels incredibly prescient because of the events unfolding around the world over the last several months. This is a film for then and this is a film for now.
Mangrove tells the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a West Indian businessman who opens up a restaurant (the Mangrove of the title) in Notting Hill. Things get off to a solid start, but harassment by the local police almost closes the establishment. Raid after raid on the restaurant takes its toll on Crichlow, but the whole area and its inhabitants are also suffering from racial abuse by the police. A protest in August 1970 descends into chaos when 300 police officers turn on the 150 protesters. Crichlow and eight others (including Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby) are arrested and brought before the Old Bailey with charges of Rioting and Affray. In court, they face-off against the brutality of the police and the systemic racism of the British Establishment in an attempt to prove their innocence.
Mangrove is Steve McQueen’s finest film in terms of story. All of the director’s films have featured key performances and stunning visuals, but this time around his focus is firmly fixed on the narrative. He knows that the true-life story of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ doesn’t require any overt artistic flourishes or visual gimmicks because the reality and the power of the tale is all that is needed. He’s aided by an incredible cast and both Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright deserve some awards glory this year. Their performances are incredible. You can feel their pain, their heartbreak and their anger.
A truly stunning film, Mangrove resonates even more loudly now because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Windrush scandal. Steve McQueen’s film illustrates that relatively little has changed over the last half century and that British society has always had the tough gristle of racism running throughout it – something which goes all the way back to its Colonial past.
Mangrove powerfully illustrates the West Indian side of this oppression – there are similar stories to tell from others too, for instance from Irish and Asian perspectives. Brexit will bring a more isolated Britain and perhaps now is an apt time to use film and art as an exploratory vehicle to acknowledge and confront its true history. While it remains to be seen if this will happen, it is filmmakers like Steve McQueen who throw light on these forgotten events, which show there’s no excuse for not knowing what occurred in the relatively recent past and to challenge why relatively little has changed.