About twenty minutes into Steve McQueen‘s Mangrove, the first of his five-episode mini-series Small Axe playing at this year’s London Film Festival, there is a barbecue in progress. Friends, partners, colleagues gathered together to celebrate life, culture, and some good food. A steel band playing at full volume as a vibrant, celebratory, and peaceful party gets into full swing, dancing in the streets and smiles across everyone’s faces. Minutes later, we move into a police station as local coppers are chatting about said, locals.
“Knick ’em for what?” says one younger officer. “You’ll learn” replies his senior.
Set around the late 1960s in Notting Hill, London, Frank Crichlow (the superb Shaun Parkes) is opening his new restaurant, Mangrove, a celebration of all this Caribbean cuisine and a place for the local community to come and relax. But, with police raids and racially motivated sanctions ever-increasing, his business is targeted. Time after time, wave after wave, the police’s incessant raids persist – even for the most ludicrous of charges – hoping to get retaliations from the locals so they can arrest them.
How can they rise up against the injustices without fear of prosecution? How can they change the patriarchy and racism against them when the system is “as crooked as a damn ram’s horn“? Enough is enough, so Frank, local activist Darcus (Malachi Kirby), and British Black Panther Movement leader Altheia (Letitia Wright in a career-best turn), amongst others, plan to demonstrate against their persecutors. However, a riot ensues, the group are arrested for inciting it and are laid at the mercy of the Old Bailey.
Many would say McQueen’s film could not be more timely, but to say so is to miss the point: any time is a good time to tell these stories, any time is a good time to educate people on the suffering and injustice that was thrown at those who were trying to live their lives the best they could. Of course, it is given even more oxygen with the events across the globe in 2020 but as with 12 Years A Slave, it doesn’t matter when: it needs to be told.
McQueen’s usual powerful, thoughtful storytelling and hefty direction give Mangrove its propulsion, elevating it above many other films of its ilk and fully immersing us in this loving, passionate world that many were intent on destroying. We are in this world, in amongst the protests and the demonstrations, experiencing the frustrations of the justice system in the courts, cheering along with those that have suffered and continue to suffer these injustices, and can feel their pain.
With Mangrove and the rest of Small Axe, as well as Aaron Sorkin‘s The Trial of the Chicago 7, the reverberations of these, as well as countless other injustices, are being felt even more powerfully now than they ever have been. We all want to live in a world with equality, with love, and with compassion but as time goes on, we slip further and further away from it. Thankfully, McQueen won’t let it happen and his magnificent film is such a reminder that we all can – and must – be better.