Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is an incredibly produced miniseries. Divided into five separate films, McQueen tackles the experience of the West Indian community in Great Britain, and the first film, Mangrove, is a stunning achievement. The film is a social justice story paired with a courtroom drama, and one of the anchors is Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe.
Kirby brings such dignity to his portrayal of Howe, one of the Mangrove Nine who were tried for inciting a riot during a protest in 1970. In a casual conversation earlier in the film, another character suggests that Howe is a natural leader, and Howe chooses to defend himself in the trial. There are many triumphant moments during the trial scenes, but a highlight is when Howe easily proves that officers were lying when they said they were a witness to a particular moment of the riots.
The way Kirby stares down his antagonists struck me throughout the film. He is carefully choosing what to say because he knows that everything he does is under scrutiny, and Kirby (who was robbed of an Emmy nomination for the remake of Roots) brings such immense power to the screen. There is strength in his stillness and you can see it in Kirby’s expressive eyes.
Awards Daily: Before a lot of the events of Mangrove take place there is a stillness to Darcus that I thought was very striking. Was that a character choice or something you found through your research?
Malachi Kirby: It was definitely partly conscious. There was a consciousness of Darcus’s intelligence and how he was very intentional. His power was in his words and he knew how to articulate himself. Amongst these circumstances, where everyone is understandably being ruled by emotions, his superpower was being able to respond that was effective. There would be some observation for that, for sure.
AD: Steve McQueen is such a powerhouse. What did you learn from him?
MK: Oh, man. I could write a book on that.
AD: That’s a loaded question I’m sure.
MK: Yeah. Honestly, that’s a long list. The things that were most significant that I’ll take away is the importance of being present. The power of that. I remember when we were doing rehearsals and I’ve always considered that space to be a warm-up and a safe space. You don’t have to make serious decisions or commitments, but you can really explore the character. It was very different with Steve. Not even from the rehearsal room but from the audition room. Give all that you can to every moment. Don’t hold back. We had that throughout the show and there’d be small montage scenes described in one line. I would think that’d be an easy shooting day but with Steve, those ended up being 20-minute improvisations. That’s the biggest thing that I’ll take away into my career—to not hold onto that reserve.
AD: I imagine the rehearsal time would be so helpful, especially when you are dealing with such a tumultuous moment.
MK: Helpful is an interesting word. (Laughs)
AD: I just mean how the emotions are so high and you aren’t going in blind to it. You can rely on things you worked on in rehearsals.
MK: For me personally, the fact of playing a real person was difficult and using an accent that I don’t have, the improvs would’ve been a much more welcoming experience. Darcus’s voice was such a significant part of who he was and that was very important with me. So I’d work with a voice coach and then go into the improvs and think, ‘Oh, I haven’t practiced that.’ That was a bit terrifying but trusting that process and who this person is…transcends accent. Just be present. If you’re there, the accent won’t matter hopefully.
AD: I kept wondering about Darcus’s relationship with Barbara [Reese]. Since they are going through this trial together, were there any conversations between you and Rochenda Sandall about building that relationship?
MK: To be honest, not that much. That’s a testament to Rochenda as well.
AD: I loved her.
MK: Yeah, she’s wonderful. There wasn’t a real need actually. I didn’t want to pick it apart. We were just there. The environment that Steve creates on the set, everyone had to bring. There was sort of a shared understanding and there was a lot of understanding between me and Rochenda.
AD: What was the energy of the demonstration scene like?
MK: That’s an interesting question. In the research that I did, I looked at a lot of the visual research in terms of photographs and the audio like Darcus’s speeches. When we came to that scene, I had in my head his voice. When he gets up on the car, that’s one of the few times we have his audio actually speaking. That scene was unique in that sense where we have footage of them at that exact moment in time. It was intense because it was a dip into history like the other scenes weren’t. Now it’s suddenly there in front of your eyes. It seems so much stranger now, especially given everything that’s happened this year. When we filmed those scenes, this was last year, we didn’t know these marches would happen a year later. It’s surreal to think of if we shot that film next year. It would’ve been a different energy.
Mangrove will premiere on Amazon on November 20.