The first instalment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove is powerful, eerie and depressingly still relevant today. An important film that excels most during its quietest and intimate sequences.
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill doubled as a community centre for Black Londoners to exchange ideas and to commune. As police brutality and harassment intensified, the Mangrove also became a site of resistance leading to the wrongful arrest for incitement to riot of nine local activists including Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).
Although there were nine people arrested and put on trial, McQueen’s focus is on three figures mentioned in the synopsis. We follow Frank from his home to the Mangrove in a beautiful tracking shot of Greater London being built through a massive expansion program. Frank walks as if he is being watched, dubious of others and has the demeanour of a man who has the world upon his shoulders. This demeanour never leaves Frank throughout the runtime and after the fact.
Verbally, emotionally and physically attacked by police who do not want a black community in their area. Frank almost calls it a day to close his restaurant. After this and the needless attack on Darcus, the West Indian community rises and rallies them. Making it the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the abuse given to them. The peaceful protest and march are shackled by the police who cause a riot to ensue. Thus allowing the police to be heavy-handed and arrest who they want to.
The tension is rife throughout the opening hour between the community who just want to get by and live their lives. The police, however, want them gone purely due to them having a different colour of skin to them.
Where Mangrove excels is in its courtroom scenes, which have been well researched as you will not find many films so accurately depict the goings-on of within a courtroom. Though obviously, McQueen had to cut a lot of this down as the actual trial was dragged out over 11 weeks. He does excellently to bring it to life in such a short time and it has to be imagined that he wisely utilised court transcripts of the trial to obtain this authenticness. This is especially so in the cross-examination scenes, which are always so clichéd in other films.
Others will say that the court scenes perhaps slow the film down, but I think it enhances the entire film. We are given an hour of shock as the police beat individuals, raid homes and the Mangrove at will. The shock of the attacks stays with you, even when you see little of it. When we get to the courtroom quieter scenes come with it and it works marvellously as a counterpoint.
It is hard to pinpoint a standout from the cast, so it is just better to state how perfect each actor is in their role. Shaun Parkes is the heart of the film. Trying to play a character who wants nothing of the activism going on. Until he is dragged into it by the actions of the police. Wright is the power of the film, fierce and unforgiving in demanding change. Her protest speech and reactions in the police station are astounding, a masterful performance here. Howe is also so strong here and provides a spellbinding performance, especially so in his closing argument at the end of the trial. You are captivated by this speech.
As mentioned at the beginning, Mangrove works best in its quieter moments. This is not to say the loud and abrasively ugly scenes are not needed, they very much are. It is simply that we see more of our characters when the camera is left to linger on them as they ponder and plan. No scene depicts this better than the verdict scene as we focus on Franks’s face as each verdict is given. We hear the judge and the foreman and apart from reactions from the gallery, little else. The camera keeps on Frank as he reacts to the verdicts. It is a bold shot but tells us everything we need to know about what this means to him.
An example of the thought that was put into the shots of this film is in the protest scenes. Altheia is finishing her protest speech and the camera cuts away from her and to a rain-soaked reflection of her from a car bonnet. It is a bold shot, but also a beautiful one. You will find gorgeous shots like this throughout.
As we hear our closing statements in the court we have a shot of Darius giving a passionate speech on the importance of the verdict incoming. He is positioned at the bottom of the screen so that those who he is speaking for. With his black community who are up in the stands of the court can be visible. He isn’t just speaking for his group on trial, he is speaking for everyone, demanding that change happens. McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner are on top of their game here visually.
Mangrove is McQueen at his very best, coupled with performances that will startle and empower. This is a film that demands to be seen.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!