Director Steve McQueen achieved a remarkable feat in 2020, directing not one but five feature films about West Indian immigrants in the United Kingdom. The series was titled Small Axe, and was funded by the BBC. It is a remarkable achievement, not simply because of the size of the project but because of its exceptional quality too. The centrepiece of the series is Mangrove, a full-length feature that adapts the real-life 1971 court case in which nine West Indian immigrants were tried for riot and affray in the aftermath of a street protest that turned violent. It is a provocative basis for a film drama, and a historical event that deserves to be highlighted and shared.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian immigrant, opens the Mangrove restaurant in late 1960s Notting Hill. From its opening night, Frank and his restaurant suffer harassment by white racist Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell). The establishment is raided time and time again, under false accusations of drug dealing, prostitution, and illegal gambling. When Frank fails to receive help from police and his local politicians, a group of activists including fellow Trinidadian Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Black Panther representative Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) organise a protest against police harassment. When the Notting Hill police charge the protesters on the street, its organisers are arrested on charges of riot and affray and face potentially years in prison.
The immediate comparison that comes to mind while watching Mangrove is with Jim Sheridan’s 1993 drama In the Name of the Father. While this new film is nowhere near as harrowing as that work, it does inspire about as much rage at the endemic police culture of corruption and racism in 1960s London. It honestly works as a companion piece to Sheridan’s film, but also stands firmly on its own as a timely and relevant portrayal of West Indian struggles in a broadly intolerant United Kingdom (the Windrush scandal occurred just two years before Mangrove was released, after all).
The historical events make for vital drama, but McQueen (and co-writer Alastair Siddons) cleverly situate Frank Crichlow as its emotional centre. He is a plain-spoken, ordinary man. He has no great ambition to fight racism or transform British society; he simply wants to run a local restaurant serving Trinidadian food. It makes his growing distress at Pulley’s constant harassment palpable. He is not prepared for such a fight like an activist would be. He is not immediately prepared with a means of fighting back. Certainly, after he is criminally charged and thrown into court, he has no desire to be a political icon. Shaun Parkes plays the part with extraordinary humanity and humility.
The entire cast is impressive, without a single weak link in the chain. Letitia Wright continues to demonstrate immense talent as the fiery Black Panther activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe. She expresses tremendous smarts and strength, as does Rochenda Sandall as British-born protester Barbara Beese. As the odious Frank Pulley, Sam Spruell delivers a character who is immediately and viscerally loathsome. I am always impressed at actors willing to perform roles so innately unlikeable.
Mangrove looks outstanding too, with Shabier Kirchner’s photography easily equaling anything seen in a theatrically-released movie. McQueen directs it with a great sense of structure and pace: there are many characters being juggled throughout, and events never feel confusing or unclear.
This is A-grade social drama: one of 2020’s finest feature films that partially crept under the radar by virtue of its broadcast origins. It boasts a profound sense of character, culture, place, and history. It does not simply feel impressive – it feels necessary.