Hunger to Shame, 12 Years a Slave to Widows. It’s the type of run most directors would dream of; Steve McQueen’s done it in his first four films. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, he follows up his outstanding 2018 heist movie Widows with the Small Axe anthology, a group of five films centred on London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. Stories focussed on Black people’s culture, experiences and struggles against racial discrimination. First up is Mangrove, an intensely powerful account of one group’s fight against legal injustice and societal racism.
A period piece though Mangrove is – terrific costume and production design authentically recreating the ’60s Notting Hill setting – the parallels between the battles the characters face (based on the real-life ‘Mangrove Nine’) and the institutionalised prejudice still rampant today feel frighteningly pertinent. It’s a story that couldn’t be more timely.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is the proud proprietor of the Mangrove, a vibrant new restaurant which serves as a safe space for the local Black community. A place to eat traditional food and to engage in energetic debate. But it’s soon targeted by the police, their presence in the film fronted by the truly despicable PC Pulley (played to hateable perfection by Sam Spruell), who openly spouts his racist agenda to anyone who’ll listen. With tensions rising, the police conduct a series of raids on the restaurant (each shot with freewheeling and chaotic energy), adding fire to the bellies of the activist organisation who’ve made the Mangrove their home, the Black Panther Movement (headed up by the extraordinary Letitia Wright).
Mangrove’s fiercely acted, relentlessly moving first half deals with racist violence, corruption and brutality at a street level, culminating in the arrest of Frank and his Mangrove regulars (collectively labelled the ‘Mangrove Nine’). But it’s the second half in which McQueen somehow manages to shift the dramatic tension up another gear, relocating the narrative to the courtroom to highlight systemic failures and institutional racism. It’s here that I lost count of the number of scenes in which I felt myself holding my breath, taken aback with outrage, sorrow and anxiety, each actor given their moment in the spotlight. Shaun Parkes plays Frank with an unblinking dignity, yet his eyes convey every ounce of his bubbling anger. Letitia Wright is next level in an electrifying turn, delivering speech after heartfelt speech with power and precision. Together they embody the passion and fury that permeates every inch of Mangrove.
A compelling watch, and essential viewing.
Rating (out of 5):
Mangrove was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.