CAST: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Gary Beadle, Jack Lowden, Alex Jennings, Llewella Gideon, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell, Jumayn Hunter, Sam Spruell, Joseph Quinn, Derek Griffiths, Jodhi May, Samuel West, Richard Cordery, Tahj Miles, Doreen Ingleton
RUNNING TIME: 124 mins
BASICALLY…: Following a peaceful protest in 1970s London, nine black protestors are wrongly arrested and put on trial…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2020 – it is currently scheduled to air on BBC One on November 15th 2020.
This year’s BFI London Film Festival has already made substantial changes to match the current COVID-19 dominated climate, so to have a film made exclusively for television kick off the proceedings for the first time in its 64-year history doesn’t seem like a huge stretch. It’s especially poignant when it comes from none other than Steve McQueen (who opened the 2018 festival with Widows), and it’s about a significant event in British legal history that feels extremely relevant fifty years on from the moments in question.
Mangrove is the first in McQueen’s series of five anthology films called Small Axe, which as of writing are scheduled to be broadcast on both BBC One and BBC iPlayer this November (the second entry, Lovers Rock, is also playing as part of the festival, and you can expect a review for that coming soon as well). Each feature-length film deals with different stories from several parts of London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s, with predominantly black casts and plotlines that deal heavily with the prejudices and antagonisms that people of colour faced during that time. Mangrove kicks things right out the gate with a powerfully told tale of racism, injustice and politics that is bound to draw a lot of comparisons with Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, except (and I say this as someone who liked that film) this one is a lot more profound and far less trapped in a state of convention, which makes it far more compelling and emotional.
Set in Notting Hill during the late 60s and early 70s, the black-owned Mangrove Restaurant is constantly harassed by the police for clearly race-related reasons, which is causing great strife for its owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and other members of the community, from activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) to the leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright). They lead a peaceful demonstration against the brutality of the police, but when things start to become violent nine individuals – including Crichlow, Howe and Jones-Lecointe – are arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot. At their trial at the Old Bailey, the Mangrove Nine fight for their freedom, with some of them defending themselves and drudging up evidence of racial hatred within the British police force.
McQueen does not let the trappings of television cloud his eye for cinematic theatrics, as he lends a powerful spirit to his story as he has done with previous films like 12 Years a Slave and Hunger. He adopts a very gritty depiction of the cruel and inhumane treatment of black civilians by white police officers, with several scenes of unlawful raids and arrests – one of which is sparked by a game of cards, where the loser must go out and arrest the first black person they see – making you squirm in your seat, as they should do. The level of racism clearly on display here is highly disturbing, and McQueen uses key filmmaking tactics from one-take shots to dark, moody cinematography to show how rough life was for innocent people who, at the end of the day, just want to run a simple business without having the cops show up every evening for no good reason.
The second half of the film focuses solely on the trial, and it is where the film, and McQueen’s sharp recognition of compelling storytelling, really comes into its own. The trial at first seems like it’s just another intimidation tactic by the oppressive legal system, with certain black protestors being denied entry into the court despite having a ticket, but the Mangrove Nine prove themselves to be a smart, savvy counsel as they continuously point out the holes in witnesses’ accounts, in moments that had the crowd I saw it with cheering as though it were a football match. It’s nail-biting stuff, especially as they still find themselves brutally mistreated even inside the courthouse, and the acting from everyone is absolutely perfect – Letitia Wright in particular is outstanding in this – which makes their frustrations and growing strife over the system that’s always out to get them feel so much more real.
McQueen succeeds where Aaron Sorkin slightly missed the mark with The Trial of the Chicago 7; similarities aside, this film has a far greater standing on social and political issues, primarily race and police brutality, and it cuts to the heart of its themes with a profound subtlety that Sorkin’s film, while hugely entertaining, was somewhat lacking (the absence of a corny-as-hell conclusion in this film also helps substantially). Ultimately, it is McQueen’s film that proves to be the more powerful of the two, with a real sense of grit and suspense because we are following characters who, at any given moment, could have their lives uprooted by racist police without a need for provocation. That isn’t to say that Sorkin’s film isn’t worth checking out either, because that does remain a good movie, but McQueen’s handling of a major show trial with multiple defendants during the late 60s and early 70s is the far richer, and more emotionally satisfying, entry.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Mangrove sees writer-director Steve McQueen kick off his Small Axe anthology in powerful fashion, with a depiction of the real-life trial of the Mangrove Nine that’s brutal, gritty and highly emotional in its strong depictions of racial injustice, which along with McQueen’s passionate eye for filmmaking and a stellar cast makes it a far more emotionally satisfying courtroom drama than Aaron Sorkin’s strikingly similar The Trial of the Chicago 7.