Small Axe review: Mangrove cuts an impressive picture

The real-life events of Steve McQueen's new film still ring true in 2020.

Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC One

By Saidat Giwa-Osagie

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5.0 out of 5 star rating

Mangrove is a film full of signs. In the opening scenes, its lead character barely notices graffitied racist slurs on the way to his restaurant where he props his handwritten Black-owned business sign on display. These small details foreshadow later events where his community support him against racist harassment, unaware that their protest posters will serve as evidence against him during a historic trial at the Old Bailey. Steve McQueen’s latest work hints that the signs of a racial reckoning are all around us. He asks us and the main character: what must we do when we can no longer ignore the signs?

Set in London’s Notting Hill during the late 1960s, Mangrove tells the true story of Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian restaurateur who is racially harassed and bullied by the Metropolitan Police at his restaurant and West Indian hub. Crichlow’s harassment inspired a local peaceful protest that was hijacked by the police, leading to charges against Black protestors for riot and affray at the country’s highest court. The collective, known as the Mangrove Nine, were eventually acquitted and the incident prompted official acknowledgement of racism within the London Metropolitan Police.

Airing on BBC One this Sunday and released on Amazon Prime next week, Mangrove is one of five films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Years in the making, the long-awaited series tells the oft-unheard stories of London’s West Indian community in between the 1960s and 1980s. If you ever asked the particular question of how one should open a five-part film series, Mangrove would be the fitting answer.

Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC One
BBC

The two-hour premiere undoubtedly holds its own as a solo project. Still, its inclusion in the Small Axe series serves to convey the magnitude and importance of sharing these stories – a tall order, but delicately handled by the film’s makers. Given our hindsight of the Mangrove Nine case and the subject matter of racism in our current political climate, it would be too simplistic and disingenuous to treat the narrative as a surefire victory.

In the hands of a less-skilled Small Axe cast and crew, the underdogs of the story could coast their way to a glib and paint-by-numbers conclusion, but Mangrove’s cast animate their characters with vivid humanity, reminding us of the story’s real-life origin. In Shaun Parkes’ performance as Frank Crichlow, we not only see a man wrestling with frustration, apathy and desire for justice as his business is threatened, we feel his turmoil too.

Parkes portrays Crichlow’s reluctant ascent as a community leader with deft subtlety. When police violently barge into his establishment on multiple occasions and scare customers away, he swings between outrage and hopelessness as his complaints to his MP and the embassy go unanswered. Crichlow’s fight for justice is eerily reminiscent of author Toni Morrison’s words about racism, and how its function is to distract. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”

Small Axe (BBC)

In the film, as the establishment fails to acknowledge Crichlow’s humanity, Parkes relishes it. His moments of despair and anger aren’t glossed over or overly sentimental. They’re honest and show the human strain of carrying the mantle of leadership for a greater good.

As Crichlow discovers his inner-leader through the community, other characters are determined to rewrite the Black British narrative through their trial. When the Old Bailey case and possible imprisonment looms, biochemist student and UK Black Panthers activist Altheia Jones-Lecointe (played by Letitia Wright)] responds to the situation with unruffled determination. “We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists of our own story,” the character says in the film.

Wright delights as Jones-Lecointe, bringing an air of buoyancy to her character. A voice for the voiceless, Wright plays Jones-Lecointe with unreserved conviction. Her protest and courtroom scenes show a young woman unafraid to take control and stand up for justice, despite the odds stacked against her. She also deals with the intersectional context of being Black and a woman, revealing the complex layers of her character, as she worries about how imprisonment will uniquely affect her pending motherhood.

Malachi Kirby’s standout performance as activist and writer, Darcus Howe conveys the generational impact of the Mangrove Nine. Kirby melts into the role of Howe with such believability as his unwavering commitment to racial justice creates fissures in his relationship and family with Barbara Reese (a spirited Rochenda Sandall). His closing statements at the trial are a testament to Mangrove itself as he says Britain history cannot be written without the Mangrove Nine.

Malachi Kirby and Letitia Wright in Small Axe on BBC One
BBC

The film’s attention to detail makes Mangrove a visceral experience. The set design, costumes, and music transport the audience back to 1960s West London with ease. We are treated to scenes of a young Notting Hill carnival celebration, complete with melodious steel drums and dancing in the street against the grey backdrop of London’s skies. Even in its time warp, the cultural shorthand of Mangrove is still familiar.

McQueen plays with time and contrast to emphasise the impact of the police’s violent racism. In the aftermath of another police raid at the restaurant, the camera lingers on a strainer as it rocks slowly on the kitchen floor. In another scene, we follow the police through a car windscreen as they randomly chase after a young Black man at night for sport, before it cuts abruptly. The fateful protest is shot from multiple perspectives, showing protestors surrounded by police as the event switches from a peaceful demonstration to a frenzied crowd. All these scenes leave us contemplating the ramifications of this violence, albeit in contrasting ways.

Mangrove is a story about big and small triumphs. It’s about small signs leading to significant changes, a tiny community making an unforgettable impact and little moments with overwhelming meaning. By reenacting these unexamined parts of British history, Mangrove revives the story for a broader audience who can doubtless draw parallels between 1968 and today’s racial injustice. It shows us times have changed, but not everything has changed with it. The signs still exist today, but the timeliness of Mangrove’s release suggests we’ve still got more looking to do.

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Small Axe: Mangrove airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 15th November. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.