Dir: Steve McQueen. Starring: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Jack Lowden. 126 mins
The most striking moments of Mangrove, Steve McQueen’s triumphant invocation of Black British history, aren’t of anger, tears, or passion – they’re of silence. It’s the minutes we’re left alone with the Mangrove Nine as they await their sentence. The loose collective of activists were charged in 1970 with “Riot and Affray” and brought before the Old Bailey to be made an example of, all because they dared to protest racial hatred in the Metropolitan Police. We’re shown the protest – it’s entirely peaceful. The officers respond, unsurprisingly, with batons and handcuffs.
Now they await their fate, sat tucked away in some courthouse meeting room. Hope and disquiet play across their faces like the flickers of a dying ember – across the soft but unyielding eyes of Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a Black Panther, or the drooping brow of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), whose restaurant in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, became a locus of political resistance after a series of brutal police raids. We’ve spent nearly two hours with these characters. We’ve come to understand what they’ve sacrificed, what they desire. And now we must wait with them – armed with the knowledge that progress too often relies on the mercy of the establishment.
There is silence, too, after one of the police raids on the Mangrove. McQueen shoots these scenes as sudden and chaotic – a burst of white hands in black uniforms, as they grab and punch and throw. But afterwards, in all the mess of broken glass and smashed pottery, the only sound comes from a colander still rattling around the kitchen floor. McQueen, in one of so many brilliant flourishes in this film, lets the camera rest for a moment, so that his audience can sit with the violence they’ve just borne witness to.
Mangrove is not only a film – it’s a declaration. McQueen has memorialised on celluloid what the government has continually refused to acknowledge, with both flair and emotional grandeur. He has recentred the Mangrove Nine, not only in Black British history, but British history at large. This film is only one piece of a larger puzzle – a five-part collection of films, titled Small Axe, all directed by McQueen and centred on the experiences of London’s West Indian community from the late Sixties to the mid-Eighties. A second film from the collection, Lovers Rock, is also set to debut at the London Film Festival. Mangrove is a showstopper of an opening film.
The film’s textures and colours are both faithful and evocative, from the wide-collared jackets of Lisa Duncan’s costume design, to the restaurant’s garish, floral wallpaper, richly captured by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner on 35mm. But McQueen is meticulous, too, carefully mapping out how the system protects itself – the cops (who have a figurehead in Sam Spruell’s lizard-lipped PC Pulley) are shielded by the judges, who conceal their own racism behind rules and etiquette. The eerie drone of Mica Levi’s score kicks in when we first enter the Old Bailey, its cathedral-like, domed ceilings turned instantly oppressive.
But the Mangrove Nine found strength in each other, just as the film finds strength in the cast’s powerful, resilient performances – not only Wright and Parkes, but Malachi Kirby and Rocheda Sandall, as fellow activists Darcus Howe and Barbara Reese. Wright, particularly, is phenomenal here. She’s a towering spire, her declaration that “we musn’t be the victims, but protagonists of our stories” ringing out like a call to arms. Several of the defendants chose to represent themselves. They decided that, whatever the outcome, this was the platform they needed to speak their truth. Thanks to McQueen, their words continue to echo today.