“Mangrove,” the first film in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” quintet of movies revisiting the London of McQueen’s youth, is both the establishing film of the series and the most challenging to approach.
The movies, about the first generations of the Caribbean diaspora from former British colonies (Jamaica, Trinidad, The Bahamas, etc.), all paint a colorful picture of these
Black “outsiders” with their own music, way of dress and cuisine, and how difficult it was to gain acceptance in the rigid, racist UK of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Mangrove,” built around the community’s “Stonewall/Chicago 7” event, hurls us into the thick accents, the overt police harassment and violence and the politics of the times. And while it establishes McQueen’s style of immersive filmmaking for these movies, it’s of a denser texture and more trying length, forcing the viewer to adapt to the islands’ patois (accents softened with assimilation) in ways that the following films (“Lovers Rock,” “Red, White and Blue,” “Education” and “Alex Wheatle”) do not.
And it’s the most directly-historic film of the series, tracing Britain’s acceptance of one of the many cultures that make up the country’s fabric today to the last-straw-moment when that culture demanded acceptance.
The Mangrove was a landmark “Black Owned” restaurant that opened in Notting Hill in the pre-gentrification ’60s. The film captures the contagious optimism of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes of TV’s “Lost in Space”) as he opens this Caribbean cuisine diner and brings “spicy food” to meet the demands of people who grew up with jerked chicken, goat curry and the like.
He could never have known it would start a culinary revolution that would reach full flower in the “Cool Britania” of the ’90s. But the opening of a place the diaspora could call its own was greeted with joy, a steel-drum band street party and success.
To keep it, Frank would have to fight. People would have to march, protest, be arrested and have their day — 55 days — in court.
McQueen builds the escalating cycle of police harassment and violence around the actions of one street cop, the racist de facto “sheriff” of Notting Hill, Frank Pulley. We see the seething resentment Pulley (Sam Spruell of “Legend,” “Sand Castle” and “The Informer”) embodies and passes on to his colleagues. The police department of the day was all white and racist enough to have stationhouse card games where the objective was to force the PC (police constable) who drew the Ace of Spades to “arrest (and beat) the first Black bastard we see” on the beat.
Pulley knows who Crichlow is from an oft-raided coffee shop, The Rio, he’d attempted to run earlier.
“He’s just got to know his place,” Pulley growls. And so the many visits and raids on The Mangrove begin.
Crichlow knows exactly what’s happening and what’s coming, and is furious and defiant from the start.
“We pay we taxes! We pay we bills! This a restaurant, not a battleground!”
But he’s wrong. The self-policing — we see his customers chase would-be drug users/dealers out — won’t be enough. Their mere presence is an affront to the white supremacist cops and “the system.”
Soon Crichlow will have to accept the offers of help from the Black Panthers, in the form of Altheia Jones (the wonderful Leticia Wright of “Black Panther”), and the poet laureate of neighborhood resistance, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby of the recent “Roots” remake). In truth, Crichlow was an activist himself and thus didn’t need persuading.
Soon they’ll be printing up fliers in the upstairs offices, despite cops busting in and smashing their mimeograph machines.
And soon after that, they’ll be taking to the streets, a dozen unprovoked “raids” later. That march leads to the police riot, and that’s what lands “The Mangrove Nine” in court.
The trial dominates “Mangrove,” and what’s striking in McQueen’s recounting of it is how effective the activists were at questioning cops and prosecution witnesses (some represented themselves), how fiery they came off, despite angry rebukes from the judge (played by Alex Jennings) and how quickly the mostly-white jury accepted both their decorum-shattering behavior, and their point of view.
It’s as if white people knew what was going on with an out of control, racist police force, and were ready to be embrace “enough is enough.”
“Mangrove” isn’t the most emotional film in the series, nor the easiest way to be eased into this world. Courtroom dramas are predisposed to bogging down on the screen. But McQueen makes its history come alive, and lets us see the importance of this restaurant and its place within the events, lives and culture that emerge from every other movie in the series.
“If you are a big tree,” Bob Marley sang in the allegorical anti-white supremacist song that gives its title to the series, “We are the small axe, Sharpened to cut you down (we shall), Ready to cut you down…”
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Sam Spruell, Rochenda Sandall and Jack Lowden
Credits: Directed by Steve McQueen, script by Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen. A BBC film on Amazon
Running time: 2:04