“Mangrove” is the first of five BBC-produced TV films by director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” 2014 Oscar for Best Picture), who turns his lens to his own community in London. The docudrama/anthology “Small Axe” presents the experience of West Indian blacks in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This film opens in 1971, as Frank Critchlow (a strong performance by Shaun Parkes), greets the first customers of Mangrove, his new Caribbean Notting Hill restaurant. Frank, who is black, was in the hospitality business before—with the El Rio club, an after-hours kind of place—but with this venture he’s playing it straight: no gambling, no drugs, only spicy food, a festive ambience, sociability, and the sounds of reggae and (surprisingly) American country music.
The formula works—perhaps too well. Just as in 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma’s white community resented the success of north Tulsa’s prosperous black community and, in revenge, killed over 300 blacks, some of Notting Hill’s whites resent Frank’s thriving establishment. Their ringleader is PC (Police Constable) Pulley (Sam Spruell), a sullen, unattractive man whose role in the film is to articulate and represent the systemic racism—deeply indebted to colonialism—that permeates white Britain, including its courts. As Pulley openly asserts, “the black man…has got his place.” To keep Frank (and all he represents) “in his place,” the police will raid and damage his restaurant 9 times in a matter of weeks and will continue to harass him for another 20 years, until he closes the business in 1992.
There’s a good guys/bad guys aspect to the film that makes it less interesting, and less honest, than it could be. We’re expected to assume that Notting Hill’s blacks are all honest, law-abiding and, above all, joyful people, ready to dance in the street on a moment’s notice, and that the neighborhood’s police are all vile, corrupt, racist, and violent.
But for a time, especially in the middle third of the production, McQueen modulates the Manichean dualism by introducing conflict over strategy within this black community. Frank believes he and the restaurant will survive by keeping a low profile and staying out of politics, at the same time that he confronts Pulley head-on, shouting that he knows Pulley resents the spicy food and colors of Mangrove. A more militant and political approach is articulated by Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright, “Black Panther,” 2018), a strident, articulate representative of the Black Panthers, and by Trinidadian Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), nephew of CLR James, the Caribbean scholar and political theorist. (Darcus in the film uses James’s philosophy to convince Frank—whether he wants the role or not—that he has become a community leader.)
The militants have their way, a demonstration against the “pigs” results in serious charges of “affray and riot,” and the Mangrove 9, including the reluctant Frank, go on trial at the venerable and Dickensian Old Bailey—lots of white wigs and much disgraceful, racist conduct by prosecution witnesses, the prosecution counsel, and the presiding judge (Alex Jennings). Those familiar with the trial of the Chicago 7 in 1969/70 will recognize the behavior.
It’s political theater: intensely political, and definitely theater.
McQueen makes the trial scenes riveting—not an easy task—by focusing on just a few of the people and allowing one or two to speak for a group. It’s political theater: intensely political, and definitely theater. After another debate over strategy, it’s decided that Jones and Howe will represent themselves. That decision leaves ample room for drama (bleeding into melodrama) and speechifying, for which Wright and Kirby—splendid actors both—are ideally suited. Altheia’s chin will tremble more than once as she convinces Frank that copping a plea would be putting his “I” before the community’s “we,” a position echoed in Darcus’s assertion that the restaurant, having become a community institution and symbol, no longer “belongs” to Frank. Darcus’s poetic closing argument is gilded with the metaphor “closing time” and the mantra “I don’t care,” an assertion based on the idea that the tide of history will bring justice even if the jurors don’t.
The film’s undeniable power owes much to McQueen’s talents as a director (and he co-wrote the script). It must have been tempting to use flashbacks to illustrate the courtroom scenes, but McQueen’s narrative is chronological, and stronger for it; we’re always in the present. McQueen also succeeds in winnowing the players as the film progresses, so that only a few share the stage for the final act. He transforms characters who seem stereotypes in the early scenes—like Altheia, the fiery Black Panther, and Darcus, the homesick Trinidadian—into nuanced individuals. McQueen has a superb sense of when to cut (he fast-forwards through a year of trials, birth, and controversy), and what not to show; when the jury’s verdicts are read, we see only Frank’s face, and he’s tearing up. You’ll be tempted to tear up, too.
The reggae soundtrack does its part, too; it’s a music of contradiction—joyful and sensuous on the one hand, foreboding and confrontational on the other. As Frank thoughtfully smokes a cigarette outside Mangrove while others celebrate inside, Toots and the Maytals’ 1969 global hit “Pressure Drop” makes it clear that the battle has been won, but the war will go on: “the pressure gonna drop”—on him.
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Sam Spruell, Alex Jennings
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 127 minutes
Mangrove ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Availability: Streaming only on Amazon Prime video; for future availably, see JustWatch here.