Two years after Steve McQueen’s Widows opened the 62nd BFI London Film Festival, he’s back again with the first of two submissions for the 64th.
The world premiere of Mangrove screened on 7th October at the BFI, kick-starting #LFF2020 with a COVID-responsible event, in the presence of McQueen himself, executive producer Tracey Scoffield, and central stars Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, and Rochenda Sandall.
Set between 1968 and 1971, beginning shortly after Enoch Powell’s infamous 20th April “Rivers of Blood” address, Mangrove tells the story of Trinidadian immigrant Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes – Moses Jones 2009). His dream? To simply open a good all-night “West Indian” restaurant at 8 All Saints Road, Notting Hill W11. We meet Frank at his newly varnished tiny space with old friend Dalston “Dol” Isaacs (Gary Beadle – Grantchester 2017-19) and Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon – The Real McCoy 1991-96) as they exchange banter whilst preparing for opening night.
Not just a popular eatery, Mangrove is a meeting place for artists, intellectuals like Trinidadian historian, journalist, and socialist C.L.R. James (Derek Griffiths – Coronation Street 2016-17), and political activists like his nephew Radford “Darcus” Howe (Malachi Kirby – Roots 2016) his girlfriend Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall – Line of Duty 2019) and their friend Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright – Black Panther 2018). A fellow Trinidadian, Howe intended to study law but pursues journalism and political activism. He has already helped found and organise the British Black Panther Movement (BBPM) as well as the two-year-old Notting Hill Carnival. Jones-Lecointe, also from Trinidad, studies biochemistry and organises immigrant workers’ rights.
However, amidst the growing sense of cultural achievement and Political Blackness, PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spuell) has pounded the beat for 17 years, and after helping to bring down Crichlow’s previous popular El Rio Café, he is set against this second business venture. As the Mangrove flourishes at the centre of the area’s cultural strength, Pulley indoctrinates rookie PC Dixon (Joseph Quinn) into the codes of behaviour in handling the local “black bastards”. By striking at the Mangrove repeatedly and insisting that drugs and criminals pass through it, simultaneously, the police engage in an unrelenting cycle of unprovoked abuse of the wider community. There is a fruitless “fight back” scene in the heart of the beast, when a desperate mother, Mrs Manning (Michelle Greenidge – Code 404, 2020), sees what has become of her son, symbolic of the impossible plight of the W11 black community.
After repeated fruitless complaints through the proper channels and random acts of kindness and encouragement from the community, Crichlow, Howe, and Jones-Lecointe organise a march. On Sunday 9th March 1970, 150 people (including children) gather at the restaurant. Lecointe and Howe make short, powerful speeches. The protestors march, peacefully but passionately. They encounter police everywhere – 588 constables, 84 sergeants, 29 inspectors four chief inspectors, plus an unknown number in plainclothes, and then the inevitable happens.
Arrests are made; the Mangrove is raided. Crichlow, Howe and Jones-Lecointe are singled out as ringleaders, along with Beese, Rhodan Gordon (Nathaniel Martello-White), Rothwell Kentish (Richie Campbell) and Godfrey Millett (Jumayn Hunter), who face 5-10 years each when put on trial at the Old Bailey, presided over by a hostile Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) and Prosecutor, Mr. Hill (Timothy West), corrupt police, and a majority white jury. Howe and Lecointe make the stunningly historic decision to represent themselves alongside their comrades in court!
It has been 50 years since the fateful march against institutionalised racism: 49 years since the sensational Old Bailey trial in which the British judiciary first acknowledged racist behaviour in the Metropolitan Police; 47 years since Horace Ové’s 1973 documentary The Mangrove Nine; 11 years since the multi-award-winning McQueen decided to commit the stories told to him by family and friends to film and collaborate with the BBC to bring the recent history of British Caribbeans to our screens. In short, Mangrove and the Small Axe Series has been a long time coming.
Shot on 35mm film (vs the 60mm film and digital of the others), Mangrove surpassed expectations. Absorbing the scenes radiating from the big screen, there is nothing to detract from this expansive cinematic experience. McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s immigrant, sixties West London is in stark contrast to the usual depictions of Mary Quant’s brightly coloured youth-driven, cultural revolution of fun-loving hedonism. And yet, with a lightness of touch, they subtly manage to avoid ghettoising the locality, by declaring that run-down and neglected it may be, dirty and squalid it does not have to be.
If you know nothing of the true events which inspired Mangrove, the title could conjure up tidal forests on tropical coastlines, rather than the political drama which McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” collaborator John Ridley failed to give us in “Guerilla” (2017). Conversely, co-written with Alastair Siddons, McQueen has ensured that there is no wasted dialogue and no irritating modern slip-ups. The cast is the most delicious selection of the cream of Britain’s Black British acting talent. It simply doesn’t get much better than this series will offer. Beginning right here. it’s like the Black British GOT or Harry Potter – who isn’t in it must wish that they were! The stand-out treat had to be seeing Griffith’s back on TV as C.L.R. James.
The Trinidadian accent is not the easiest to master and most were excellent. Unfortunately, one or two Jamaican accents were below par. But it was surprisingly satisfying to note that particular attention to detail was paid to distinguish the different Caribbean island inflections. It wasn’t a problem for the hitherto criminally under-used Shaun Parkes, who emerges triumphantly from the shadow of such contemporaries as Lennie James, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Idris Elba. His smouldering, mournful intensity and fine control is unmatched by any of his co-stars. His face in close up is quite extraordinary. Just as Crichlow was the lynchpin of the community protest action and the trial unity 50 years ago, so too Parkes mirrors that pivotal role in his casting. Without his particular brand of steely anger, ice in his fear, barb to his frustration, or silk in his joy, empathy for the character may have been more tenuous, given a couple of creative decisions which seemed contrary to the man’s character.
At only 26, Letitia Wright has unequivocally proven that she is an accomplished actress of considerable talent. As the leading female character, she doesn’t disappoint and gives one of her most powerful and mature performances to date. Her intelligence and humour, power, and passion converge beautifully to represent Jones-Lecointe, who went on to lead the BBPM, ensuring that defending black women and girls was at the core of the movement, complete a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and who could spellbind a room with her speeches during which you could reportedly hear a pin drop. Jones-Lecointe was the character most betrayed by Ridley’s “Guerilla” (2017), in which the leading female activist was played by South Indian actress Freida Pinto.
Malachi Kirby also delivered a performance of power and maturity, made all the more affecting by his uncanny resemblance to the late Darcus Howe. It cannot be overstated how note-perfect Kirby is throughout, without descending into mere mimicry. The central and supporting cast should be proud of the performances they each turned in for a seamless production.
McQueen is a little guilty of over-reliance on mindless racism and the basic bullying personality of the main antagonist, PC Pulley – a truly repulsive Spuell. The possibility of misdirected jealousy and frustration is hinted at. But, the real source of Pulley’s hatred and certainty behind his accusations of on-site corrupt patrons and activities is never explained. The flipside – why The Mangrove was so popular – was also omitted. Crichlow’s previous place, the El Rio Café on Westbourne Park Road, was frequented by Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward who later brought down the Conservative government in 1964 with the Profumo affair. The Mangrove was unusual in being an all-night restaurant. So, during the day, it was available as a meeting place for the local black community and white radicals, artists, authors, and musicians. Famous customers were again attracted, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Norman Beaton, and Vanessa Redgrave. The premises also served as the publication base for a newspaper, The Hustler, and as the informal head office for the Notting Hill Carnival. The truth is that a reasonable case could probably have been made for a raid or two, but none of this is in the film, which wasn’t the only glaring omission …
Love: In the general sense, gender politics was remarkably downplayed. Yet, the plight of the black woman bled through. Full of fear, quick to anger and regularly rowing with Howe, Beese is shown physical tenderness, romantic love and affection throughout the film. Jones-Lecointe is, at best, shown platonic affection, carnival love. Though she shares a surname with fellow BBPM member and constant, supportive presence Eddie (Gershwyn Eustache Jr), it was a genuine surprise to only realise at the trial that they are married and about to be first-time parents. Despite sharing a meeting scene, McQueen fails to allow a shared kiss hello, a hug, a hand-hold, entwined arms or any show of affection between the two. It’s a mystery why he kept the scene at all. And perhaps he should examine why Lecointe, as the darker-skinned black woman could not be shown as a woman, despite being married and pregnant. Because, at this rate, a big, juicy “Black Love story” is probably Wright’s last remaining professional challenge.
Back story: Friendships and family bonds were not particularly clear. We didn’t get to know too much about any of the central characters, which is always a risk with an ensemble cast.
All-black Jury: All the source material I could find stated that it was Howe and Jones-Lecointe, representing themselves but conferring with defending co-counsel, who made the show-stopping, landmark argument for an all-black Jury, having recognised the right under the Magna Carta (1215). McQueen/Siddons took that achievement from them and gave it to another, white, character.
Rupert Boyce and Anthony Innis: Like Horace Ové’s 1973 film The Mangrove Nine there were nine individuals labelled as ringleaders, arrested, and put on trial at The Old Bailey in 1970. Boyce and Innis seem to be omitted from publisher cast lists. Two names from a piece that is presented as an antidote to the erasure of our history, our heroes, and our rights, is significant and pretty hard to reconcile. Seven of the nine names were cast with high profile actors, eight individuals appear in the dock image. We have it on good authority from a cast member that they were there, but we remain confused. We’d love a rebuttal, Mr. McQueen …?
Shortly before the screening, Steve McQueen very nervously gave a short speech, ensuring that we all understood clearly that this film is based upon true events. He became deeply emotional as he thanked his crew and then his family and friends for the stories they told him. He called them heroes; anxious for their approval – so much more than that of any critic. Describing the anthology as a celebration of and a love letter to Black resilience, triumph, hope, music, joy, and love. Mangrove will strike a chord with Caribbean and African Brits alike who are linked with that generation. Their stories have been neglected and are only now coming to the fore. As the first of the Small Axe series, this is a good enough start.
Mangrove and the entire Small Axe series, including Education, Alex Wheatle, and Red, White and Blue will screen on BBC1 across November 2020.
Mangrove and Lovers Rock are also screening as part of the 57th New York Film Festival (17th September – 11 October 2020) and the 73rd Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection (10th – 18th October 2020).