Review: Mangrove – Steve McQueen’s topical courtroom drama

Photo: BBC

One of five films in director Sir Steve McQueen’s new anthology series, Small Axe, Mangrove chronicles the story of the Mangrove Nine in 1960s/1970s London.

Mangrove turns the story of a group of Black British activists, fighting back against racially motivated police raids, into an intense, taut sequence of courtroom showdowns.

On the surface, a thrilling, politically-charged drama that – similarly to its real-life events – exposes police harassment of black Britons among London’s West Indian community, McQueen’s impassioned movie episode goes beyond to give us a harsh, pertinent reminder of the reality we live in, closely related to the current Black Lives Matter protests that are ongoing in 2020, in its basis.

Originally announced as a series for BBC One in 2015, the series was further acquired by Amazon Prime Videos in 2019 for distribution in the United States, with Amazon co-producing for its eventual festival and streaming release in 2020.

The drama starts off in 1968 following Shaun Parke’s Frank, the owner of the titular restaurant in the film, as he walks the racially-tainted streets of the west London neighbourhood of Notting Hill; walls blighted with praise for Enoch Powell (a racist politician of the time) and messages of hate for the immigrants living in the community.

Accompanying this is Bob Marley’s “Try Me”, a conflictingly vibrant sound.

This sequence is followed by a voice-over quote from Trinidad-born historian C.L.R. James, informing us of “new types of human beings” in whom “are to be found all the traditional virtues of the English nation, not in decay as they are in official society, but in full flower because these men have perspective.”

Right from its opening, Mangrove flaunts to its audience its dissentient with scenes from history, calling for a more thorough, fair, and responsible approach to explore the wrongs of the past, even in its dramatised telling, whilst showing an empathetic understanding for those involved.

Mcqueen himself stated it could be a Western – “with a guy opening a saloon, and the local sheriff is harassing him, and he goes all the way to the highest court in the land. These are universal stories.”

The film tells us this universal story of injustice, in the unjust display of anti-racist politics that were employed around the West-Indian community in Notting Hill and that further extended into the dissonant, incongruous atmosphere of the courtroom during the trials.

Photo: BBC

At the core of the film, Shaun Parkes’ powerful, standout performance shines as the best among a talented cast, including the likes of Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Malachi Kirby (Black Mirror), Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), and even a cameo by Derek Griffiths (Watership Down) as aforementioned west-Indian historian C.L.R. James, whose quote follows the film’s opening.

It is in the cast’s vivid, impassioned performances and Mcqueen’s bare, realist display of the incivilities enforced onto the Mangrove Nine, that the film’s intentions of bringing to light an educational message in learning from the past succeeds.

Mangrove may feel all too much like a history lesson at times, but in its comprehensively unpleasant view of the past, it projects a message of education in righting the wrongs of the past that have carried on into the present, by hoping for a sense of modern change with posterity.

Mangrove, which opened the 64th BFI London Film Festival in October, premiered on 15 November 2020 on BBC One and premieres today, 20 November 2020, on Amazon Prime Video.

Words: Ashvin Sivakumar | Subbing: Leah Trimmer

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