LFF 2020: Mangrove Review

Jonathan Gleneadie

 

Throughout his career as an artist and filmmaker, Steve McQueen has confronted his audiences with difficult truths, often uncomfortable to watch but always deeply affecting. His first two features, 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame, depicted contentious subject matter with an ambiguous lens. Holding a gaze on IRA hunger strikes in the former, sex addiction in the latter, forces the viewer to revaluate or consider what it is they think they know about these subjects.

Then in 2013, a breakthrough to Oscar glory with 12 Years a Slave. Infinitely less contentious but unflinchingly focussed in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery and the tragedy of Solomon Northrup’s life.

In 2018, there is a sharp pivot, 2018’s Widows. McQueen, perhaps unexpectedly, helms a US heist movie with a formidable female lead cast, co-written by Gillian Flynn. The result is an electric, if somewhat sullen film, which transcends the genre with emotional and socio-political resonance.

Letitia Wright as Aletheia Jones-Lecointe

Now McQueen turns his gaze closer to home, a relentlessly powerful depiction of a struggle for justice in 1960s/70s West London. A perfect opening to 2020’s London Film Festival, Mangrove is one part of the Small Axe series which will become available on BBC iPlayer on 15th November.

The film begins in Notting Hill where we first meet Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), putting the finishing touches on his new restaurant, the Mangrove. Serving only West Indian cuisine, the venue is unique in the area and quickly becomes a community hub, drawing the unwelcome attention of the local police force.

Using the pretence of searching for drugs and prostitution, PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) begins a series of raids driven by racial hatred, designed to make Frank give up on joining wider society as a legitimate business owner. Though completely unnuanced, Spruell plays the part with a distressingly putrid malevolence, oozing Pulley’s abhorrence from the screen. He sneers as customers are hurled from the premises, whilst the restaurant itself is devastated under the batons of his team.

Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe

Though there are hints at illegal activities in Frank Crichlow’s past, he stands firm in his conviction that the Mangrove is a lawful business, and during the repeated raids Frank attempts to maintain his dignity. But such is the violence of the aggressors that his own anger spills over. It is in these frantic moments, where he is thrown to the floor or dragged from the premises, that there is the most palpable and poignant sense of fragility. There is a sense here that one wrong move could trigger the end.

US authors James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates write of the risk of harm that is ever-present to the black community in their country and it is no different on British shores. In Mangrove, McQueen conveys this threat with masterful authority, so when one of the young men working in the Mangrove is hunted by police officers, whose only goal is to arrest the first black person they see, the outcome can only exist on a scale of negatives.

McQueen captures the joy and spirit of the community in Notting Hill but also highlights their isolation. There are beautiful, long sequences of music and dancing. Cinematographer Shabia Kirchner brings the camera in close on the dancers, sashaying around them, allowing us to join the forgetful moments of ecstasy. It seems the whole world parties with them. As the scene ends, we step back to reveal a small group of revellers, alone in a world controlled by hostile forces, in the darkening street.

The Mangrove cements a place in the heart of the community, a safe place with warm inviting 60s décor, spicy food and colourful characters. So, when this sanctuary is threatened, a protest is organised. Local Black Panthers members Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Aletheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) hold meetings in the Mangrove, they are familiar with Frank and convince him to use the Mangrove raids as a spark to ignite the community against a racist police force.

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow

The subsequent march is broken up by the police and nine people, including Frank, Darcus and Aletheia, are arrested. Though the first trial is thrown out, a second charge of riot and affray threatens to send them all to jail. Pioneering civil rights lawyer Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden), an old friend of Alethea’s, joins their case as council, jarringly offering a potential White Knight as the story enters its denouement, but in an audacious and inspired move, both Darcus and Aletheia choose to represent themselves. Here, McQueen effortlessly pivots the film into one of the most magnetic courtroom dramas put on screen.

Kirby plays Howe with deep introspection, highly intellectual yet not untroubled by his role as a leader. Entering the courtroom, this changes. His years of thoughtful study and learning come to the fore as he calmly absorbs the attention of the room, making his argument as if from a soapbox, to an enthralled crowd.

Wright gives Jones-Lecointe an unflappable surety. She is both the spark that kindles the fire, and sympathetic, generous with her time and ear. Effortlessly compelling and emotionally intelligent, she stokes the flame of the movement, and the film.

Both Kirby and Wright shine with dazzling energy, unbreakable spirit and furious intelligence as they pick apart the state’s case, but it is Parkes who steals the show in the final third. For much of the film Frank has been defiant and durable but as time is the only thing on the march he begins to wane. In the courtroom Parkes brings a troubled stoicism to Crichlow, fear, anxiety and desperation replaces the dignified resistance. McQueen reveals him as small, a shrunken presence, almost hiding behind the bench in the majestic courtroom filled with energy, bravado and occasionally, comedy.

In one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the film, as a recess is called by Judge Edward Clarke (a perfectly poised Alex Jennings), both Darcus and Frank are dragged from the courtroom and thrown unceremoniously into holding cells. It is here that Frank explodes with a hard-earned rage. We watch from the viewing slot in the cell door as Parkes unloads the contents of Frank’s being, until there is no breath left in his lungs. Bathed in the light of the cell window, it is a moment that encapsulates the injustice of situation. The exhaustion of fighting for your life every day. The indignity of being treated as less. The camera turns to the bailiff outside the door who shushes Frank with spine-tingling malice, in the final insult.

The accused forced this trial to become about the true charge, the colour of their skin, forcing prosecution and judge to acknowledge this. The charged language of the courtroom, Clarke suggesting life is “luck of the draw” is particularly grating, begins to subside as Darcus and Aletheia take over. They are committed to the trial, regardless of the result, being a turning point in the civil rights struggle in Britain.

The story of the Mangrove 9 may not be as well-known as it should be, but McQueen intends to change that. This is a film irresistible in its determination and determined in conviction. The fight for justice here feels universal but yet so deeply entrenched in the history of black people in this country, an unheard story that needs to be heard, and in doing so, McQueen once again shakes us all to our very roots.

Mangrove is part of London Film Festival 2020 and will be available on the BBC iPlayer from 15th November as part of the Small Axe Series

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About The Author

Jonathan went back to university to study Film Journalism in Glasgow in 2012 and hasn't looked back since. Writing for the Edinburgh Internation Film Festival, The Birmingham Review, The Electrolyte Magazine as well as Front Row Reviews he enjoys working across media and if not lambasting folk about politics it's film on his agenda. Working in The Electric Cinema in Birmingham has allowed him to come closer to the medium he loves, his favourite filmmaker is Wong Kar-Wai.

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