Mangrove

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mangrove
"The ease with which McQueen shifts the tone from very serious argument to light-hearted banter is sterling."

Two films capture the volatile climate with race relations in Great Britain during the mid-Seventies into the early Eighties: Franco Rosso’s 1980 feature Babylon, starring Brinsley Forde with a score by Dennis Bovell, and Rubika Shah's ever more urgent White Riot (2019 London documentary winner). The latter focuses on the evolution of Rock Against Racism in 1976, which led to the 1978 Victoria Park concert, featuring Steel Pulse, The Clash, Tom Robinson, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex.

Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (London’s Opening Night selection, New York’s Main Slate), co-written with Alastair Siddons, starring Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby, and shot by Shabier Kirchner, is neither of the period, nor a documentary, (as are the respective films mentioned above) and yet, it manages to convey a vivid sense of time, place, and community, plus the critical factual story of the Mangrove Nine (Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish, Godfrey Millett) and their trial at the Old Bailey in London.

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Kirchner is a master of filming crowd scenes, the communication of enjoyment, as well as rage. From children at play, to crowded dance sequences (I dare anyone not to be taken in by the pull of Lovers Rock, also shot by him), to fast-moving demonstrations and a static, packed courtroom - we are always fully there. His range is remarkable.

During the film’s first stroll through Notting Hill, in 1968, we see children making the best of it by playing in the rubble of the ruins still left from the war. Walking across planks, hopping from up high onto an old mattress. Black kids and white kids are having fun together in perfect, natural harmony, while the adult world is at its breaking point. This juxtaposition of young and old is done with the lightest of touches, functioning precisely as an unadorned reminder that hatred has to be taught. On the walls we read “Powell for PM”, referring to Enoch Powell, the ultra-conservative, anti-immigration politician, whose speech against the Race Relations Act of 1968 riled up the country.

It is the opening day of Mangrove, the restaurant owned by Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes as if he were carrying all of humanity on his shoulders), on All Saints Road, Notting Hill. West Indian spicy dishes are being cooked by Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) and served by Kendrick (Tahj Miles) as the joyous crowd spills out onto the street. The police, headed by Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), an angry, hateful, pockmarked man filled with envy, are watching to “record and observe”. He will be the other Frank’s shadow and nightmare, with his unprovoked, constant harassment and racial divide that is central to the film.

Altheia Jones-LeCointe, outspoken leader of the British Black Panther Movement, which uses the Mangrove as a meeting place, is played by Letitia Wright. Her display of charismatic no-nonsense power and warmth should bring Wright an Oscar nomination (if the film becomes eligible).

The third protagonist of the movie is activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), whose TV appearance has great impact. At home, he reads The Black Jacobins, the book by Trinidadian author CLR James, whose words from 1938 still ring true. Howe’s partner and mother of his small child, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), points out that he grew up where Black people were the majority, whereas she experienced what it means to be “too negroid to be adopted.” Her position is that “actions speak louder than words” and suggests he start by cleaning up the mess in the kitchen.

The ease with which McQueen shifts the tone from very serious argument to light-hearted banter is sterling. The energetic script reveals the dynamic of casually inflicted horrors in the name of law and order. At the police station, we witness Pulley and his colleague PC Royce (Thomas Coombes) initiate a new young member, PC Dixon (Joseph Quinn), of the department to their rules of the game. They play cards and the newbie has the ace of spades - which means that he has to go outside and nick the first Black man he encounters. “For what?” he asks, blushing. “For sport!” Is the response.

For them any excuse is fine to storm the Mangrove over and over again. With truncheons in hand, they hit and forcibly remove the diners and leave the place destroyed. Frank Crichlow does not want to become a hero, “it is a respectable restaurant, not a battleground.” To no avail. The system, starting with the police and ending with the judges, works like a machine. On the phone with his local MP, he complains about “a complete harassment on a Black business.” Unbeknownst to him, he has become a leader of his community.

Around 150 customers and friends of the Mangrove restaurant decided to demonstrate on August 9, 1970. More than double the number of policemen show up as well. The ensuing altercation leads to charges against nine of the protesters, Frank Crichlow, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, and Darcus Howe among them. Their trial takes place at the Old Bailey, usually reserved for the most serious of crimes. Jones-LeCointe and Howe decide to self-represent, in order for them to be able to cross-examine witnesses and protect their rights.

The courtroom drama is as fascinating as what led up to it. From the rejection and selection of the jurors to the reactions by Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings of Amma Asante’s Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw), labelled an “upper-class bully” by defence lawyer Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden). Clarke’s strong sense of ownership - “my courtroom”, he says - and world-weariness, plus the overall arrogance displayed within the system, can be used to the defendants advantage. It is spellbinding to watch how what could seem like defeat can turn into victory.

When a lawyer (Richard Cordery) tries to convince a drained and exhausted Frank to plead guilty, Altheia becomes enraged and explains that “they try to divide us”, that undermining solidarity is the goal. Like vampires, the unjust return. But this is for the future, she states, for her unborn child. And the future of what is shown in the film is ours now. The words by Judge Clarke that there is “evidence of racial hatred on both sides”, stuns the courtroom. McQueen dedicated both Mangrove and Lovers Rock to “George Floyd and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are in the US, UK and elsewhere”.

Mangrove and Lovers Rock (Opening Night Gala selection of the New York Film Festival), as well as Red, White and Blue (also screening in the Main Slate), Education, and Alex Wheatle are the five original films of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology about London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2020
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The true story of the Mangrove Nine, the group of black activists who clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970 and their highly publicised trial that followed.


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