Mangrove, which came out this Friday on Amazon Prime, is the first in a collection of five films directed by Steve McQueen, all of which focus on London’s West Indian community over a span of decades. One film in this “Small Axe” collection will be released per week for the next month, just in time and precisely on-theme to close out 2020.
Whether by accident or by design, Mangrove tells a story that has quite a bit in common with Netflix’s recent The Trial of the Chicago 7, focusing on themes of racism, police violence, and the dangers of placing faith in “the system” to sort out problems that the system itself creates or condones. The main difference in Mangrove is that the story revolves around Black immigrants who suffer directly from violence, rather than white Americans protesting on behalf of others.
The story is based in fact: in the ’60s, a group of West Indian immigrants in Notting Hill met to protest against police violence. They aimed to protect the Mangrove restaurant, an unofficial community institution that is a continual target of abuse from neighborhood cops. The demonstration became violent once the cops get involved, and the film depicts the court case that followed, in which many of the defendants represented themselves against a frustratingly rigid judge.
What Mangrove does particularly well is to bring issues that span place, time, and systems into sharp, personal, zoomed-in focus. There is no denial in the film that they are dealing with racism that spans place, time, and systems. However, the characters grapple with the meaning of dealing with the specter of racism in their own individual lives; they are not symbols, but real, fleshed-out people. Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the Mangrove’s owner, is frankly reticent to get involved in political movements. He just wants to run a respectable business. But racist systems and racist individuals make that an impossibility, forcing him to reconcile his personal desires and his desires as a target for racist attack.
In this way, Mangrove not only tells a story of the people rising up against systems such as the police and the courts – it also chronicles the personal choices and sacrifices that each individual makes, voluntarily or otherwise, as a participant in the fight.
This individualization and humanization is made possible through stellar acting. Shaun Parkes joins Letitia Wright (of Black Panther fame), who plays Altheia Jones, the Panther (the real kind) who passionately argues for the protection of Black communities, even if that means getting political. Malachi Kirby plays Darchus Howe, one of the multiple protestors-turned-self-representers, whose cross-examinations and speeches are both incredibly reasoned and brilliantly delivered. Rochenda Sandall, as Barbara Beese, portrays a Black woman who is pulled between her activism for the Black community and the responsibilities that fall upon her as a woman to be a proper mother for her and Darchus’s child. The entire ensemble convenes masterfully to humanize both the personal and the political, and to represent the struggle of balancing individual lives as compared to a community’s legacy.
A joyful, authentic soundtrack and creative editing and sound design elevate Mangrove from important story to well-executed film. The movie leaves the viewer feeling angry, hopeful, and intensely curious about what will come next in Steve McQueen’s sure-to-inspire Small Axe series.
Although it takes place half a century ago, Mangrove feels relatable in its political relevance and its personal narratives. Come for the story, stay for the unexpected sense of hope that it brings.