Not even COVID-19 can stop Steve McQueen in his tracks. Release after release has been delayed due to the pandemic, and yet the veteran filmmaker has still managed to debut several films at festivals recently. All are from Small Axe – his new anthology of stories focusing on London’s West Indian community, set between 1969 and 1982.
The first of these movies is Mangrove, a brilliantly directed and superbly performed courtroom drama that is all the more powerful for how relevant it feels in today’s troubling climate. In the film, which premieres at London Film Festival this week, we follow Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) – the owner of a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that is repeatedly raided by racist police officers led by PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell). Eventually, peaceful protests are organised by British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) – and Frank reluctantly joins in. But when he and others are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot, they are put on trial for their lives.
During the trial, Jones-LeCointe and fellow activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) choose to represent themselves. So often in movies like this, it’s the job of a white lawyer to stick up for the oppressed Black man, but McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons thankfully put the emphasis on Black people fighting their own battles. “We mustn’t be victims but protagonists of our stories, and what better way of representing ourselves but self-representing ourselves?” argues Jones-LeCointe. The clever cross-examinations that follow is just one way in which Mangrove freshens up a tired genre.
Elsewhere, Frank is depicted as a complex and initially unwilling hero. The youthful optimism of the activists is juxtaposed with his world-weariness, the result of too many hard-fought battles that have played out in familiar ways. This is to say nothing of the gambling and other vices that come with his defeatist attitude. And yet, Frank is no less heroic because he is flawed. It helps that Parkes’ performance is note-perfect – whether in a fit of righteous anger or silent contemplation. But he’s matched every step of the way by Wright, whose star continues to rise following Black Panther – and here is on career-best form.
Not all of Mangrove’s standout contributors appear on screen though, some work behind-the-camera instead. Thanks to director of photography Shabier Kirchner, McQueen’s latest is visually vibrant. His beautifully composed shots bring London’s West Indian community to life through food, song, and dance, evocatively establishing a sense of time and place. Mangrove is the perfect example of its creator’s greatest gift – the ability to bring little-known stories from the past to the present in a way that resonates. Here’s hoping that the rest of McQueen’s Small Axe series is as excellent as its opening chapter.
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Cast: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby
- Release date: November 15 (BBC One / iPlayer)