Mangrove – London Film Festival 2020 – Film Review

As the opening night film for the London Film Festival, Mangrove passionately plants a relatively unknown moment in Black British history firmly into the consciousness of the mainstream public. Mangrove is the first film within director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology depicting a pivotal moment within British race relations in Notting Hill and the trial of the Mangrove 9. Boasting a stellar cast, Mangrove certainly incites that sense of triumph over adversity within its evocative storytelling. McQueen has delivered another engrossing tale with his artful direction and insights into West Indian community life in London in the 1960s – 70s.

Selected by the Cannes Film Festival, Mangrove plunges its audience fully within the turbulence encountered by Frank Crichlow, owner of the eponymous Mangrove restaurant, at the hands of the local police. Whilst the Mangrove restaurant served as that sanctuary for many West Indians living in the area with the comforting space to eat home cooked West Indian culinary delights, play dominos and listen to reggae, soca, steel band and other Caribbean music, the presence of the Mangrove was a source of intimidation for the police. McQueen masterfully depicts the welcoming ambience of the Mangrove with the lingering shots on the food which virtually sizzle from the screen with its wafts of scrumptious flavours from curry goat, rice and peas and rum punch. To the police however, the venue ‘smells like a sex club’. A visual battle ensues between maintaining that community ethos with a sense of pride and the constant threat of the closure of the Mangrove within such immersive scenes.

Shaun Parkes as Frank in Mangrove
Shaun Parkes as Frank in Mangrove

McQueen’s direction ensures that the unspoken threat always seems imminent for the owners and the customers of the Mangrove and faithfully highlights the racial tensions evident within London during such period. From scenes of young boys disproportionately being singled out for stop and search, due to being black, to the Mangrove restaurant being raided under the pretext of a drugs investigation, McQueen’s Mangrove remains uncompromising in illustrating the discrimination apparent. In fact, the Mangrove restaurant was raided by police approximately 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. Mangrove, through single shots, captures that defiant community spirit with celebratory dancing outside the Mangrove restaurant to steel band music to the frustration evident within the close ups on the expressive Shaun Parkes as Frank. The imagery under McQueen’s direction is enthralling however the muted, grainy colour palette serves as the reminder of its realism.

Contrary to the submissions of the police, the Mangrove initially had no connections to the British Black Panther movement. The constant police raids, however, encouraged Frank and friends such as Darcus Howe to defend their rights. Mangrove intersperses black and white footage of the late Darcus Howe within its storytelling, whom audiences may know as a Channel 4 broadcaster from his programme Devil’s Advocate. Malachi Kirby as Darcus captivates on the screen delivering his speeches in such a triumphant manner. Letitia Wright as Althea Jones Lecointe, leader of the British Black Panther Movement, is equally mesmerising within Mangrove with her rousing delivery and desire to fight for the rights of the future generations within peaceful protests.

Protest within Mangrove
Protest within Mangrove

As such, McQueen’s Mangrove could not be timelier. Given the protests that occurred over the summer supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after widely published instances of police brutality with the murder of George Floyd in the US, Mangrove will resonate with many. Mangrove demonstrates that such issues have also been a part of the Black British history narrative and a continuing part of the narrative for the black communities today. Frank, Darcus, Althea and friends, through peaceful protests, were arrested and subject to an unprecedented 55-day trial at the Old Bailey in 1970; they were thereafter known as the Mangrove 9.

The Mangrove 9 in court in Mangrove
The Mangrove 9 in court in Mangrove

Despite an emphasis on visual storytelling with minimal dialogue in some scenes, Mangrove excels in its portrayal of a court room drama when its action moves to the Old Bailey. The use of shots from a bird’s eye view as cars appear for the trial to the panning of the defendants and complainants within the trial ensure that the proceedings remain riveting. It is particularly compelling to listen to the persuasive arguments of those that elected to be self-represented and to view the challenges encountered within the request to invoke the Magna Carta’s clause to be tried by a ‘jury of my peers’. McQueen’s vision ensures that these sensations of frustration are justifiably shared in such moments by effectively building up the empathy with the characters using emotional close ups. Mangrove would certainly be a perfect film to watch within a busy cinema screening to experience those shared emotions.

Letitia Wright as Althea in Mangrove
Letitia Wright as Althea in Mangrove

Mangrove covers an essential period within Black British history and provides that education of a trial that has not received substantial focus of late. Whilst the subject matter may seem bleak the overall outlook conveyed within Mangrove is an uplifting message of hope and resilience. 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the trial of the Mangrove 9 and, as McQueen’s father was a friend of one of the members of the Mangrove 9, there is a personal element to the film. Hopefully, Mangrove will ensure that such case and its relevance within British race relations is included within education curriculum programmes going forward.

Triumphantly, the trial of the Mangrove 9 was the first time in which it was publicly acknowledged that ‘racial hatred’ and wrongdoing by the London police was in existence. It is difficult not to feel frustrated by the incidents on display within Mangrove and the fact that 50 years later not much change has occurred. To assist such change, Mangrove is a powerful, well-made film which should be watched by many.

Malachi Kirby as Darcus in Mangrove
Malachi Kirby as Darcus in Mangrove

Events, such as those organised by the Black Cultural Archives in summer 2020, to remember the Mangrove 9 will ensure that this case remains crucial for future campaigning and an understanding of the British justice system. Hopefully, Mangrove will encourage further discussion regarding the need for support to prevent such injustices in the future.

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