There’s an inherent tragedy baked into Mangrove, a film that couldn’t be more timely if it tried. Letitia Wright’s character, Altheia Jones, leader of Britain’s Black Panther movement in 1970, rallies a crowd, shouting “Enough is enough!” Unfortunately, half a century after this Small Axe entry takes place, the fight for racial equality doesn’t look that different. In 2020, it definitely looks worse.
The film follows the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black activists tried for inciting a riot in Notting Hill, London in 1970. The first half takes its time developing the Black community that calls the neighborhood home, especially the popular West Indian restaurant from which the film gets its name. Approaching his golden years, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) runs the Mangrove, and thus acts as our lead, getting pulled into the younger, more spirited fight for racial equality that arose in the mid-20th century. With the local police running violent raids on Black-owned establishments and even small gatherings, Notting Hill’s Black population is pushed to a breaking point.
Just like Lover’s Rock, Mangrove is more of an ensemble piece than anything. Alongside Wright’s Altheia, the younger cast includes Malachi Kirby and Rochenda Sandall as Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese, a couple raising a newborn. There’s also Nathaniel Martello-White as Rhodan Gordon, a more senior member of the community who epitomizes the justification of Black rage after generations of oppression. These performances, as well as Parkes’, are much of what makes Mangrove resonate throughout, but especially in the looser, albeit more intense, first half. All are given their moment to shine, and shine they do, above some of the film’s formulaic visuals and storytelling.
McQueen penned what will be the first entry of Small Axe to debut to general audiences (on Amazon Prime and BBC One in November) alongside Alastair Siddons, and together they have crafted a dynamic script of shifting tones and environments all from the Black perspective. But by the time Mangrove turns into a courtroom drama in its second half, its cinematic familiarities show themselves in ways both rewarding and trite. On film, courtroom dramas centered on race extend all the way back to Gregory Peck’s white savior, Atticus Finch, in the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and McQueen’s writing and direction plays to the formula’s tried and true emotional beats. On paper, and sometimes on screen, Mangrove appears to merely be the latest in a long history of racially charged courtroom dramas. Luckily, McQueen brings something few filmmakers of his talent and stature have.
As with 12 Years a Slave, McQueen isn’t really breaking or bending the rules of cinema here. Instead he’s retaking a story on race historically told by white storytellers in Hollywood, or elsewhere, and giving it back to the Black perspective. It helps that in the actual case, several of the Mangrove Nine opted to represent themselves in court, allowing the story to center itself on Black words, rather than white ones, on Black issues. It also gives way to some rousing and effective crowd-pleasing moments. Just try not to feel inspired when Aletheia or Darcus are given the chance to question those who use the law against them. The script and the pared-down visual aesthetic work well enough earn these cheer-worthy moments.
Through them and the true life character behind them, McQueen has made a largely entertaining film, no doubt. But it’s the smaller moments that make this a film by Steve McQueen. He lets the camera sit on the emotions of his Black characters, be it seething anger or muted triumph over injustices that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. This story, told from the perspective of filmmakers who inherently cannot understand what these characters are going through, would have no place in 2020. But McQueen knows what emotional angles those filmmakers have missed in the past, and thus he injects something new into the courtroom drama: emotional Black truth.