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Steve McQueen’s MANGROVE challenges the official, expurgated version of British history by reclaiming a vital moment in the ongoing struggle against police brutality and institutional racism. Jerry Whyte is impressed with the film’s political passion and cinematic mastery.
 
  "History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened."
  Hugh Trevor Roper
  What is possible is not independent of what we believe to be possible.
  Neil MacCormick

 

Flushed with euphoria after seeing his first Chaplin film, André Gide exclaimed, ‘What a thrill to be in tune with the responses of a mass audience!’ Sadly, we may never again savour the singular delights of a full house in full voice, as Gide did back in the silent era, and we did until recently. The pandemic has probably put paid to cinema-going as we knew and loved it. Neither the recent cessation of Cineworld and Picturehouse screenings nor the spectacular reduction of Odeon screenings bode well for commercial, conventional theatrical exhibition. The public acquired new viewing habits during lockdown, we’re told, some people will have acquired new laptops, and folk will return to cinemas nervously and slowly, if at all. It is crying shame that films like Talya Lavie’s sublime Honeymood, Phyllida Lloyd’s heartwarming Herself, and Elizabeth Lo’s extraordinary Stray will not delight, and receive thunderous applause from repeated full houses at this year’s London Film Festival.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though: the pandemic may, ultimately, democratize cinema. It may lead to a renaissance of art house film, an explosion of alternative distribution mechanisms, and increased public support for smaller, more adventurous independent cinemas. Film production and film festivals may become, of necessity, more environmentally sustainable than they’ve been. The red carpet could be consigned to the dustbin of history. Whether or not the pandemic calls time on that love of cinema synonymous with the darkened room and shared social experience, the 64th London Film Festival is likely to be remembered as a watershed moment. This year’s festival may prove to be either the event’s first post-cinema edition or simply its first post-lockdown one, but it will certainly be its first predominantly digital edition. Although the festival features an LFF Expanded XR/VR sidebar, only a handful of films in a significantly reduced programme will be screened in cinemas.

The Mangrove 9 stand trial

Given the shifting landscape of film production, distribution and exhibition, and given our entry into an era of ‘platform neutral’ film, it seems apt that this year’s festival opened with Steve McQueen’s Mangrove – a hybrid film which straddles the disappearing divide between cinema and television, Originally conceived as a TV series, it is one of five stand-alone films that together make up the director’s Small Axe anthology. The films will be shown weekly on the BBC, as of 15 November, and will subsequently to be available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Amazon Prime Video in the US. McQueen’s last feature film, Widows, was, of course, adapted from a BBC TV series and the astonishingly versatile Turner Prize, BAFTA, and Oscar-winner has consistently moved between mediums. He has proved himself unafraid of experiment, as consummate and comfortable whether producing work inside the white cube or for the box and silver screen.

There is another, more important reason why it felt fitting that Mangrove opened this year’s festival: it is a searing, impassioned indictment of institutional racism, police brutality, and racial profiling in Britain that chimes resonantly with the Black Lives Matter protests. Although it recalls event that occurred half a century ago, between 1968 and 1970, it also provides a contemporary corrective to Britain’s ongoing colonial amnesia. Although the film focuses on a period when the National Front was on the march and Enoch Powell was making his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, it speaks directly to the racism of our times. Mangrove pulses with political pertinence while fully respecting historical specificity. In the film a Black Panther says: ‘We need to defend ourselves against Powell and his rivers of blood nonsense before that stream winds its way to our door’ but at times it feels like we’re watching news footage of Black Lives Matter protests. Like Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood’s documentary Injustice, and no doubt like their imminent sequel Ultraviolence, the film reminds us that institutional racism is still alive and kicking in Britain, even if many of its victims no longer are.

 

Dedicated to George Floyd, Mangrove revolves around the legendary Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, the protest march called to defend it against persistent police harassment, and the landmark trial of nine Black defendants arrested for riot and affray on that march. is a film about Black self-defence, self-reliance and self-respect. It highlights historic Home Office attempts to criminalize Black radicalism and denies a pitiless state and recidivist white culture the right to erase people and ideas from history. Deeply felt and furiously indignant, it marks a return to the political engagement of McQueen’s earlier films Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, but it sits closer, both thematically and tonally, to End Credits, Part 1 – his gallery installation on the persecuted African-American activist and singer Paul Robson. That more recent work, like the feature film about Robson he is preparing with Harry Belafonte demonstrate McQueen’s determination to honour those who fought for the liberties we now take for granted. In Hunger, McQueen honoured Bobby Sands and Irish Republican hunger strikers who resisted criminalization and interment. In Mangrove, he pays homage not only to courage and commitment of the Mangrove Nine, whose legal stand transformed British jurisprudence, but also to vivacity of the West London West Indian community in which he grew up. It’s a family affair. It’s a love letter. It’s the embedded film of a man who knows that of which he speaks and tells it like it is and was.

As the film opens, its central character Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) strolls through the diverse, dilapidated Notting Hill of 1968, preoccupied with thoughts of the new restaurant he’s about to open on All Saints Road. His old speakeasy, the Rio on Westbourne Park Road, is behind him and he faces an uncertain future. He is oblivious to the radical and racist graffiti on the crumbling walls and corrugated iron hoardings he passes and unaware of the storm about to break on his head. Once opened, the Mangrove rushes into a vacuum. It immediately becomes a cherished community resource, a safe decolonised space, a fulcrum of Black Power politics, and, inevitably, the target of police violence.

There’s always a whiff of dope in the air but Crichlow, his toothpick-chewing Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) and sidekick Dol Isaacs (Gary Beadle) keep a clean house. A Black business, though, is a red rag to the racist police led by unhinged local menace P.C. Pulley (Sam Spruell). Everybody wants a piece of Frank Crichlow. Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) coaxes him into hosting meetings above the restaurant by agreeing to play in his steel band. As police raids on the Mangrove increase, trainee barrister Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) persuades him to support a peaceful protest march. ‘This government is not going to take up its responsibilities unless it sees people on the street’, he argues. ‘It’s a restaurant not a battleground’ replies Crichlow. Howe eventually prevails because Crichlow realizes ‘It’s the right thing to do’. The march ends in violence and the arrest of those who will become known as the Mangrove Nine.
The second half of the film focuses on the 52-day trial of the Nine in the Old Bailey on charges of riot and affray. Frank’s sense of solidarity is tested when his brief tempts him with a reduced sentence in return for a guilty plea. ’The system’s as crooked as a ram’s horn’, he argues, when called to heel by his comrades. With the full blessing of campaigning lawyer Ian McDonald (Jack Lowden), two defendants, Howe and Jones-LeCointe, opt to defend themselves. Their articulate speeches to the jury, forensic cross-examination skills, and deft handling of proceedings prompt even icy Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) to an unprecedented acknowledgment of police racism. The judge’s comments and jury’s verdict shifted public opinion, deepened support for the Black Power movement, and lead, ultimately, to judicial review and legal reform.  

Activist poster calling for justice for the Mangrove 9

All this might have fitted into one episode of a single TV series but, conventional though Mangrove is in many ways, it climbs higher due to McQueen’s affinity for cinema and command of its possibilities. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner shot in 35mm on Techniscope aspect ratio and makes great use desaturated lighting to plunge us viscerally into the era. A plethora of deft cinematic touches elevate the film above the level of TV-drama: the panoramic crane shot at the start of the film when the camera rises up to absorb the cityscape below, the point it rests for a minute or two on an aluminium colander rattling on a tiled floor after a police raid, the sequence in which it moves in on Frank’s face as the verdict is delivered and reveals him welling up with emotion.

Such shots of stillness and intimacy provide counterpoint to the swirling immediacy of high velocity action sequences such as the courtroom, police raid and protest march scenes. Best and most cinematic of all, perhaps, is a stunning rapid-fire, minute-long segment of still archive images that pick out, in pointillist detail, what was happening around the Mangrove and beyond the courtroom: the way the Westway was carved through Notting Hill, the residents’ campaign for rehousing, the visit of Michael Heseltine to open the controversial road. It’s a film within a film. McQueen might have allocated those photographs more time and space, but their compacted impact is stunning. McQueen knows his Bresson, so knows what to leave out as well as what to layer in.

Above all, McQueen knows the community at the heart of the film. He does justice to its joyful exuberance and salty humour, its food and music as much as its political passions and struggles. He grew up on the White City estate in Shepherd’s Bush before moving out to Ealing and has experienced deprivation and racism at close quarters, so this is not the kind of drab, humourless poverty porn we’ve become wary and weary of. The film provides a scintillating portrait of the West Indian community in Notting Hill. The novelist Colin McInnes was a regular at Frank Crichlow’s Rio and Mangrove establishments, and a witness for him in the Mangrove Nine trial. His London Trilogy memorializes the Notting Hill of bomb sites and Peter Rachman, the race riots of 1958 and Colin Jordan. Ten years later, little had changed. McInnes summed up his debt to the community: ‘1. Patience, tolerance and kindness beyond words. 2. A vision, through them, of what a society looks like when you’ve none of the privileges and most of the handicaps. 3. How to write English... I have borrowed shamelessly from African and West Indian English, neither of which are ‘broken English’ but fresh, re-created English languages of their own’. The linguistic cadences of hat community are lovingly recreated by McQueen and his superb cast.

Mangrove reflects McQueen’s impeccable musical taste as well as his roots in West London. McQueen wasn’t born until 1969, though, and the Small Axe anthology was ten years in the making, so the film is a product of painstaking research. Perhaps he saw Nicholas Jack Davies’ superb documentary Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan records in time to be guided by it. Perhaps he just worked his way through the Trojan back catalogue. He probably knew ska, rocksteady and dub through family and friends Be that as it may, the film’s soundtrack is a pure unalloyed, delicious pleasure to hear. The Small Faces’ superb Tin Solder feels slightly out of place next to Symarip’s Skinhead Moonstomp but Toot & Maytall’s Pressure Drop and 54-46 That’s My Number provide the perfect musical accompaniment to the rising tension in the film. The soundtrack is not all about Trojan and there’s a delicious There’s a delightful sequence, again adeptly shot by Kirchner, in which people pour out of the Mangrove and dance in the streets to Frank’s steel band. Feet will be twitching in living rooms around the land when the BBC airs the film on the 15 of November.

Trojan web page

The historical details in the film were clearly as meticulously researched as the music. McQueen was advised by no less than Paul Gilroy (whose Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack was to my generation of activists what C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins was to the Mangrove Nine’s), Barbara Heese, (brilliantly played here by Rochenda Sandall, who bears an uncanny likeness to Heese), the late Ian McDonald Q.C. (who defended members of the Angry Brigade a couple of years after Mangrove Nine trial), and, Selma James (erstwhile partner of C.L.R. James, played here by Jodhi May). McQueen’s above-mentioned work End Credits was assembled from thousands of declassified documents drawn from Paul Robson’s bulging FBI file and we can assume that vast quantities of films, trial transcripts, pamphlets, memoirs, interviews and history books went into the preparation for Mangrove. The rigorous research methods deployed by McQueen, co-writers Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons, historical adviser Robin Bunce, and costume designer Lisa Duncan pave dividends and stamp the film with the seal of authenticity.

One illustrative example of the film’s veracity might serve for the greater whole. At the start of the march, on the 9th of August 1970, that led to the ‘Battle of Portnall Road’, Darcus Howe makes a powerful speech to the crowd: ‘It has been some time now that Black people have been caught up in complaining to police about police; complaining to magistrates about magistrates, complaining to judges about judges; complaining to politicians about politicians. We have to become the shapers of our own destiny from today’. The speech is repeated, verbatim, by Malachi Sandall in the film and is drawn from Franco Rossi’s 1973 film The Mangrove Nine. As Jay Layda pointed out, films beget films. Those of Horace Ové and the Black Audio Film Collective seep into every frame of Mangrove.

Whatever one thinks of the BBC under the current dispensation, it can never be faulted for its attention to detail in period dramas. Here, every tie-dye top, Hillman Imp, Routemaster bus, pair of Wranglers and Trinidadian cadence will remind certain people, particularly those of Caribbean descent, of days gone by. A confession, the film brought Citizen Smith back to this reviewer’s mind. Moving swiftly on . . . what a refreshing change it makes when the period and people disinterred and memorialized occasionally represent ones we can all recognise! What a rare pleasure it is when top hats are replaced by beanie hats and their worlds are swapped for ours.

Attention to detail alone, though, does not guarantee fidelity to ‘historical truth’, even when it is aligned with authenticity of feeling and purpose. There are, inevitably, elisions in the film. As surely as The Partisan Coffee House in Soho or Les Deux Magots in Paris were, the Mangrove was a rendezvous for activists and artists patronised by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, C.L.R. James, Bob Marley, Lionel Morrison, Richard Neville, and Nina Simone. Any sense of intellectual and political ferment is marginalised by McQueen. The vital support of the wider local community and of the counterculture is also elided.

 

Mangrove is imbued with the same political passion that motivated McQueen to courageously tackle the taboo subject of the IRA Hunger Strikes. It is a conventional crowd-pleaser, though, best set alongside nominally political mainstream films like, say, Belle, Brassed Off, Dagenham, Detroit, Misbehaviour, and Pride. McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy might also be compared to state-of-the-nation TV series such as, say, Alan Bleasdale’s’ Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Plater’s A Very British Coup, Shane Meadows’ This is England trilogy, Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets, or Peter Flannery’s Our Friends from the North. Such films, brilliant though they are, raise thorny age-old questions relating to reception and representation. Is political content enough in itself? Does radical politics not demand radical forms? Do such films politicize viewers by informing them as they entertain or merely muddy the waters by simplifying and individualizing politics? Let’s just say, the jury is still out and be grateful that Mangrove informs viewers about a seismic moment in race relations that has been hidden from sight for too long. We should be grateful, too, that McQueen has given us that rarest of treasures, a film about Black political struggles by a Black Briton impeccably acted a Black cast, and grateful he’s lifted our hearts with that most moving and joyful of sights, that of justice being done.

 


Check out the BBC News page, The Mangrove Nine Echoes of black lives matter from 50 years ago:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/jGD9WJrVXf/the-mangrove-nine-black-lives-matter

BFI London Film Festival 2020 logo
Mangrove

UK 2020
124 mins
directed by
Steve McQueen
produced by
Michael Elliott
Anita Overland
written by
Steve McQueen
Alastair Siddons
cinematography
Shabier Kirchner
editing
Chris Dickens (co-editor)
music
Mica Levi
production design
Helen Scott
starring
Letitia Wright
Shaun Parkes
Malachi Kirby
Rochenda Sandall
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr
Gary Beadle
Jack Lowden
Alex Jennings
Llewella Gideon
Nathaniel Martello-White
Richie Campbell
Jumayn Hunter
Sam Spruell
Joseph Quinn
Derek Griffiths
Jodhi May
Samuel West
Richard Cordery
Tahj Miles
Doreen Ingleton

LFF screening date
7 October 2020
review posted
10 October 2020

See all of Jerry Whyte's reviews