Steve McQueen Captures a Pivotal Uprising of British West Indians in 'Mangrove'

Steve McQueen’s Mangrove — which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — is an opening statement. The film is the first of a quintet of related-but-distinct feature films to be released on Amazon at the rate of one film per week. All five films, which range in style, tone, and subject, were directed by McQueen. The overall anthology, titled Small Axe, is intended to address and bring to vivid life a stretch of relevant, under-examined history. Namely, the black British experience — and even more specifically, the lives of Britain’s West Indians immigrants in the 1970s, a period that saw a rash of police conflicts and damaging policy regimes that would prove shocking if they were not so immediately recognizable, so damningly familiar, today.

Mangrove is the opening film and, in some ways, one of the most straightforward and audience-friendly of the series. But this first foray into this rich and difficult territory is no mere appetizer for what’s to come. Its subject — as boldly proclaimed by the title — is the trial of the “Mangrove Nine,” a group of activists accused, in 1970, of inciting riots and battling the police. Their immediate cause was the Mangrove restaurant, a Notting Hill establishment, run by Frank Crichlow, that had become something of a spiritual and social axis for the local West Indian community, a slice and reminder of home, a friendlier territory, of lives not lived under the baton crack of their new nation’s Metropolitan Police. When these very police, clearly aware of the importance of the place, persisted to raid and defame the restaurant and its owner, local black activists and patrons took to the streets. Nine such protestors would be taken to court in what would become a watershed trial; some of them would even opt, in a canny subversion of the British legal system’s authoritative sense of tradition, to defend themselves. 

You can hear what’s at stake in that choice — not only to fight back, but to pose as one’s own legal power — in McQueen’s movie, when a cop, the notorious Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell), says: “You see the thing about the black man is, he’s got his place. He’s just got to know his place.” The irony is unmissable. There’s knowing one’s place, in the sense that PC Pulley means, and then there’s the fact of having one’s own place: of having the common ground of a place like the Mangrove restaurant and doing everything one can to defend it. Even if the police, the authorities crowding these peoples’ lives, are the ones who pose the greatest threat.

Mangrove is, as this summary implies, a movie that builds up to a trial. Of the so-called Nine, McQueen’s movie is especially interested in Crichlow (an astonishingly conflicted Shaun Parkes); Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a biochemist and Black Panther; fellow Panther Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby); and Howe’s partner, the fearsome activist, educator and fellow-Panther Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall). 

Here, already, we’re given a complicated portrait of black political life of the era. The Mangrove Restaurant is marked territory from the very start of the film. Police patrol it needlessly and make constant threats — and then, with a flush of violent raids and senseless beatings inspired by little more than hatred, they make good on those threats. Crichlow, as played by Parkes, is somewhat of a man in the middle. He wants the Mangrove to survive — and survival, under the constant gaze of PC Pulley and the like, means not being “that” kind of place. Not being the place that allows marijuana, or sex trade, or even outright activism, which, for the Panthers, was steeped in a righteous sense of opposition to the police. 

Crichlow doesn’t want the Mangrove to become a target. It is too late. Nevertheless his politics persist, in the movie, as something verging on anti-politics. “That man’s blood runs purer than politics,” says one of the Panthers during a meeting in which the restaurant’s importance to the community, and its potential use as a meeting place for activists, comes under discussion. None of this is Crichlow’s scene. 

Compare this to the fiery Jones-LeCointe, whom we first meet on the factory floor as she’s getting fellow-workers on their labor rights and the power of collective bargaining. She’s whip-smart, as forward in her politics as Crichlow, who is cautious — who wants his tiny slice of home to survive for all their sakes — is wary of those politics. It isn’t that Crichlow is at odds with Panthers and other radicals on the subject of Mangrove and what it means. McQueen’s film establishes, early and often, that the Mangrove Restaurant’s singularity as a community space is something all of them, from Crichlow to Jones and the like, can agree on. It isn’t so much, at first, that they are united in their approach to how to survive Britain’s constant antagonisms, as its a matter of their shared status, the shared, durative sense that their lives are under constant threat. 

So when those threats metastisize and become real, and really violent, something like a shared sense of purpose sweeps over the disparate figures in this movie, even as, scene by scene, McQueen and co. elaborate on the rifts. Listen to the conversations between Beese and Howe, for example: to the ways that conversations about radical pedagogy spill into disagreements over housework and domestic labor — subjects that mutually inform each other in ways that the women of this movie are particularly aware. 

And listen to Crichlow himself. And watch. See the man who, as imagined with stern complexity and inner grief by Parkes, has to undergo something of a political awakening over the course of the movie. This, in fact, proves to be the central thread: the arc of an ideological shift in this man, the confrontations he’s forced to have, not only with the remaining Mangrove Nine, but with himself and his own attitudes. This, more than the lead-in an out of the trial, is what forms the backbone of this movie. 

Mangrove appears, at first glance, to be a straightforward if unusually effective period picture, a film that righteously and unwaveringly lays out clean arguments and depicts the historical events at its center with a stark economy that can at times feel like its own form of violence. The film propels itself toward the inevitable — the uprising, the trial — with unusual clarity, to the point that it risks overlooking, or underexposing, the finer shades of the people it’s about. (Some of the women, for example, feel too-easily characterized.) 

But much of the power of Mangrove is in precisely the details that give us this impression, often without us even noticing.  There’s something stealthy in its awareness, in the ways it accrues crumbs of insight and observation and dispenses them throughout the narrative without us even noticing. You emerge from the movie with an enriched, nearly felt sense of the Mangrove as a place, not just as a symbol. And yet, thinking back on the movie, it’s hard to make it add up: it’s hard to account for how vivid these environs feel when thinking in terms of scenes. McQueen, whose background — it is always worth remembering — is in experimental video art, has never been one to take a journalistically objective approach to history. This is a filmmaker who loves a gut punch; who loves to dredge up images that encourage us to use our other senses to watch his film. I think of Hunger, his film about the hunger strike of IRA activist Bobby Sands, and my mind (and nose) leap back to the sight of feces smearing the walls. I think back to 12 Years A Slave — another historical project — and what largely stick with me are the movie’s discomfiting and purposefully uneven rhythms, its assault of Southern beauty, its brutal violence — including a whipping scene that I can’t think about without my entire body tensing and reacting. 

Mangrove finds McQueen doing some of his sharpest, most sensitive work; and, in turn, the filmmaker pushes us to do the work of thinking alongside the succession of scenes, the small pivots in attitude among the group when they’re on trial. McQueen’s images are by turns loose and confrontational. There’s unsettling force in his staging here — one of the many things that distinguish this movie from the milquetoast affair it could easily have been in anyone else’s hands. Precision and intention, in McQueen’s work, are often brandished loudly and abrasively — Solomon Northrup propping himself on his toes during an excruciating lynching scene in 12 Years comes to mind. 

But Mangrove tamps down the explicit virtuosity, and sheds more than a little of McQueen’s trademark miserway, swapping it all for the disguise of life-like improvisation. There are subtle ellipses, cuts between scenes, faces, and moods that shock us ever so quietly. An accusatory finger pointing at a white cop’s face inspires fear, on behalf of that black citizen, because we experience the force of her accusation from the cop’s perspective. This is a movie that does not take the rage of the police force for granted; to feel a cop’s fear, his sense of threat, in such a moment is to be pushed to imagine the violence that will necessarily ensue. 

It’s a powerful way to start, a film that grows in complexity and effect as it proceeds over the course of its two-hour length. It is so efficient, at times, and so jarringly exact in its visual and political provocations, that you almost wish it would pause, a little, and give us more of these lives as lives. Isn’t that what this series is supposed to be about? It is. And, in subsequent volumes in Small Axe, it will affirm its commitment to this idea even more persuasively. Mangrove isn’t meant to encapsulate the full range of this anthology’s overarching subject. But nor is it a palette cleanser. It is a gauntlet thrown — and next week, McQueen will pick it right back up.

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