Screenwriter Alastair Siddons has such a passion when he talks about the Mangrove Nine. He co-wrote three of the five films with McQueen–Mangrove, Education, and Alex Wheatle–but this first film is so rich in detail and nuance that you can feel Siddons’ presence despite never being on screen.
Siddons was cautious about handling this story through the lens of Frank Crichlow’s point of view. Not only does he know the Crichlow family, but he acknowledges the privilege he carries being a white person recounting the story of Black people during this tumultuous period. The weight of this story was not lost on him, and he wanted to make sure he paid proper respect, especially since American audiences may not be familiar with the story of the Mangrove Nine.
A lot of the materials needed for Siddons and McQueen to recreate specific moments were not available, so they had to trust that what they were putting on the page was vital to the story. If more period pieces paid as much to detail as Siddons and McQueen did, every one of those films would be on the same level as Mangrove is.
Awards Daily: I’m asking everyone involved with Small Axe about their collaboration with Steve McQueen. He’s such a powerhouse and I wanted to know about your involvement.
Alastair Siddons: I had a series of interviews with his team and then I met him. I didn’t think my meeting with him went very well if I am being honest. I was so nervous to meet him I could barely speak, even thought I had lots to say.
AD: Oh yeah?
AS: Well, I had actually been to Frank Crichlow’s funeral actually. When Steve mentioned it to me what the first film was going to be about and I told him that I knew his family but I never met Frank. I was really lucky to have gone to his funeral in 2010. I think that surprised Steve. I say lucky because I remember being completely away by the ceremony where it feltlike all of London had come to pay their respects to this great man. One of my best friends wrote his thesis on the Mangrove and I had been speaking to the Crichlow children about doing a documentary about their father a few weeks before I met the first person on Steve’s team. I was thrilled to be invited into the writer’s room but basically had very little expectation but after a few days in there, he asked me to take on the courtroom drama.
AD: Tell me about that pressure to get that correct since of your connection to the family.
AS: It was enormous on all sides. There was the pressure from his family but personally for me, the biggest pressure was in honoring Frank’s memory. But then there’s the pressure of working with the big man, Steve, and also the pressure of being a white man writing this story. It was very important to Steve to nail the historical accuracy. I have a documentary background and I think he recognized that. I was obsessed with the story and I kept coming up with things that I don’t think our brilliant researcher, Helen Bart, had yet to find, such as the only newspaper to serialize the court case but the pressure was still on all sides and it kept growing actually. But because I had done so much research on the court case, by the time we started writing the beginning of Mangrove I felt like I knew a lot by that point, which helped when trying to put words in the mouths of brilliant people like Altheia Jones LeCointe.
AD: It’s amazing how you have all these real people and you are writing things that shaped this point of history. I kept thinking of how we see scenes of them in public speaking compared to these private moments. There’s that powerful moment when Frank’s lawyer suggests that he plead guilty and Altheia steps in. What’s it like to put those words in their mouths?
AS: You have remember that it goes on all sides. Frank Pulley was a real person as well and has family out there too.
AS: With him it was about finding the balance as legally it was a little complicated in what we could and couldn’t say. But for me, it was just old fashioned research and I applied it to all the episodes I co-wrote with Steve. As he says, the work never stops. It was still a challenge though writing Altheia as she had kind of dropped out of the public eye after the Mangrove trial It was sort of her tipping point, I think, but with a lot of help from Helen,Tracey Scoffield, and others, we simply found everything we could. I scoured eBay for those obscure publications and hit gold with a Trinidadian dictionary called Creole Talk that was published in 1971. Our guiding principle though was that even if Altheia had said something thirty years later, they were still her words. For example, when she is eating Frank’s food in the basement of The Mangrove and they are talking about the spirit of Ogan from the IFA tradition of the Yoruba, that was something I read that she wrote for the anniversary of the Mangrove demonstration.
AD: Oh wow.
AS: We were very aware of Altheia partly because she want to be in the pubic eye. It’s different than someone like Darcus Howe who spent his entirely life in public. So there was a lot of material to mine. I remember I had a friend at the BBC who manage to find this amazing film that hadn’t been seen by anyone since it was broadcast as it was still a 16mm film reel and included Darcus in the basement of the Mangrove. Material like that got me absolutely obsessed with that they might have said.
AD: The attention to detail in this and it’s really evident how researched everything is. The writing gives the story such an emotional pull and you can tell there’s a lot of care put into it.
AS: Thank you.
AD: How do you balance a social justice story, a courtroom drama, and a pseudo biopic? It flows so well.
AS: The court case, which came first, was 55 days long. There were nine defendants, two of whom were self-representing, and we had to squash that down to roughly 55 minutes of an hour of television. Our Guiding principle was to build from what we knew definitely happened. There weren’t transcripts–those had been destroyed–but there were snippets from the newspaper that serialized the case. The white lawyer, Ian Macdonald, who represented Barbara Beese, very kindly gave us all his files. He passed away last year, but for example, that’s where we found Darcus’ closing speech and [Michael] Hill’s prosecuting speech was in a small publication from the time.
The first draft of just the courtroom drama, I think, was 110 pages by itself because we put everything we knew had happened in. But it was easy to whittle down the second draft. Of course you can’t have a court case without establishing what they were fighting for and if the Mangrove Nine were facing ten years in prison for essentially defending a community restaurant, it was obviously critical to establish what they place represented to everyone too. What I’m quite proud of is that from the beginning of our process, we wanted to honor the seriousness of the moment whilst also reflecting the inherent joy and genius the community when it comes to food, music, and dancing. That is something I remember talking a lot about in my awkward interview at the beginning…
AD: I do love that scene towards the top where everyone is dancing in the street. I think that is vital to this story.
AS: That’s Steve. Anyone can put it down in the script but lots of directors still wouldn’t capture it on the day as he does.
Mangrove, part of the Small Axe series, is available now on Amazon.