In what has become something of an LFF tradition, Steve McQueen’s latest gets the festival off to a strong, socially-aware start.
It’s 1968 and things are changing in west London. Kids play beneath a towering overpass under construction and in Notting Hill a new restaurant, the Mangrove, provides a hub for the West Indian community.
It’s a place to grab a meal or a drink, have a chat; more than that, to feel a sense of belonging. The patrons often spill out onto the street to the melodies of calypso steel band. However, The Mangrove is also suffering a campaign of harassment by the police. Bully boys with batons conduct a series of heavy-handed raids. This culminates in a protest march and a face-to-face confrontation with the local constabulary.
Written by McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons, Mangrove‘s portrait of a community under siege segues into a dramatisation of a court case for the resulting charges of riot and affray, which the Mangrove Nine, so they are called, manage to turn into a referendum on racial discrimination.
The extended cast turn in an array of remarkable performances; notably Shaun Parkes as The Mangrove’s owner, Frank Crichlow, a quiet, apolitical man pushed to the edge by injustice. The British justice system is, by turns, either malicious (embodied by Sam Spruell’s bright-eyed, hatchet-faced PC Pulley) or indifferent (Alex Jennings, sardonic weariness as Judge Clarke).
Every character gets at least a beat or two. Letitia Wright brings conviction to the role of Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Rochenda Sandall (recently of Netflix’s Criminal) essays the vehemence of Barbara Beese. They are both leaders, part of a new generation, for whom the trial is both a dire threat to their liberty and an important chance to be heard.
This authority is called into question by the presence of the Mangrove Nine, particularly that of nascent activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). It’s when he is on the stand that Mangrove is at its most electric, whether he’s picking apart the testimony of a witness or giving closing arguments.
Despite this, the film never gets absorbed in grandstanding, in simply raging against wickedness, but finds time for more intimate moments – a colander slowly rattling to a stop in the aftermath of a raid, or a scene of the accused silently smoking, waiting for the verdict to come in.
Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography contrasts the warmth and character of the Mangrove, buoyed by a selection of reggae classics, with the sterile authority of the Old Bailey and Mica Levi’s sparse, dissonant score.
The first in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is a vital polemic; both a celebration of a community and a culture, and a crucial reminder of battles that have been and continue to be fought.
Mangrove will premiere on BBC One and iPlayer on November 15th