Small Axe: Mangrove is the first of a series of five standalone films made for the BBC by Steve McQueen. The umbrella title takes its name from the reggae song by Bob Marley (or Lee Perry, depending on who you ask) and though it was originally aimed at the big-name Jamaican music producers muscling everyone else out of the market, it translates perfectly to any underdog story.
Mangrove is that story – 1968, Notting Hill in London, before it became the Notting Hill of Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts fame, was a downmarket inner-city area full of fine houses left to rot, crammed with too many tenants, many of them from the West Indies. It was vibrant, it was multiracial, blah blah blah, but to repurpose a bit of Trump-speak, it was also a shithole.
Local resident Frank Crichlow opens a restaurant, The Mangrove, hoping to escape the whores/drugs/gambling trap of his last enterprise right round the corner (still there, though now an American-style diner – oh, gentrification), but is thwarted at every turn by overzealous racist cops, keen to raid the place, affronted that a black man should try to run anything at all in a white country and using any hook (drugs? late drinking?) to haul Frank in and ruin his business.
Increasingly frustrated by his inability to turn in any direction without being blocked, and finding “the authorities” no help at all, Frank, whose restaurant has become something of a community one-stop shop, is encouraged by friends more radical than himself – he hasn’t really got a political bone in his body – to fight back.
Which is how he ends up in court on a charge of riot and affray, along with the other members of “The Mangrove Nine”, all arrested after a protest against the police got too lively.
Cue part two of the film, a classic underdog courtroom drama, with several of the Nine representing themselves, most notably Frank’s much more political friends – erudite activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther organiser Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright).
And it is a film of two halves, which is handy, because the first half is just a bit too pat, our heroes too heroic, the police (particularly in the figure of Sam Spruell’s racist cop PC Pulley), a touch too hissworthy. Everyone, good and bad, has been dekinked. Part two atones, with more rounded characters and with more time to get to know the sinning and winning sides of Frank, Darcus and Altheia, the only three of the Nine who matter dramatically.
What great performances they are. In my mind Shaun Parkes is still the slender youth of Human Traffic, but that was made in 1997 (note to self: keep up) and here he is filled out, mature, amazingly impressive as Frank Crichlow, catching the rheumy-eyed righteousness of a man whose name really meant something in pre-gentrification Notting Hill, and slightly correcting the script’s tendency to sanctify. Malachi Kirby also nails the distinctive rhythms of Darcus Howe’s speech – once heard, never forgotten – from the 1980s onwards a regular presence on British TV whenever a combative presence was required. He was always interesting and never backed down, and nor does he in McQueen’s film. I cannot say whether Letitia Wright “gets” Altheia Jones – because Jones is new to me – but the generally impressive Wright (most known for Black Panther, ironically) makes it three out of three for powerful attention-grabbing performances.
Like all the best courtroom dramas, this one has that magical gotcha moment when the underdog, by low cunning and smarts, outwits both a lying witness and a system most suited to those who understand and are comfortable with its weird formalities such as wigs and high-flown speech – ie not West Indian immigrants. Nice to see Alex Jennings, in a role that once would have gone to Edward Fox most probably, as the crusty judge whose sympathies seem to guarantee a bad outcome for the Nine.
Black British culture as a mainstream concern in a mainstream film. In terms of social history, Small Axe: Mangrove is a landmark film, simple as.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020