The film, which is part of the Small Axe Anthology, opened the BFI London Film Festival.
In Kelso Deconstructed, Zadie Smith recounts the events of Kelso Cochrane’s last day, an Antiguan expatriate who was killed by a gang of white youths in 1959 in Notting Hill. “It was time for this story to be told,” said the writer “and who is going to tell such stories if not us?”.
With his Small Axe anthology, comprising five films on Black people’s history and lives, director Steve McQueen is driven by the same urgency: depicting facts that were, until now, mostly unknown to a large part of the public.
Significantly, the series comes at a time of extreme racial turmoil, six months after the killing of George Floyd (to whom Small Axe is dedicated) ignited a wave of protests across the world. That same force that prompted thousands of citizens to march on the streets is also at the core of Mangrove. The setting – as in Zadie Smith’s story – is Notting Hill where, during the 1950s, the community migrating from the West Indies settled.
Eleven years after the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, the Trinidadian-born Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opens a restaurant, the “Mangrove”, creating a “home from home” that becomes essential for the community. Harassing from the police, however, immediately starts. Guided by a hatred possibly deriving from his incompetence and failures in life, Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) begins a personal battle against the Mangrove and what it represents- the freedom for Black people to be themselves. “They must learn their place” Pulley says to a younger officer.
Unjustified police raids and violence against innocent people continue until the Mangrove is forced to close as a restaurant, but remains open as a meeting point for activists. The harassing doesn’t stop; on August 9th 1970, the Black community of Notting Hill takes to the streets; violence erupts from the police side; nine people, who will later be known as the Mangrove 9, are arrested. The protest is followed by a trial that, in the words of Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), “showed evidence of racial hatred on both sides”, alluding to the false testimonies of three members of the Metropolitan police, including Pulley.
Steve McQueen recreates the Notting Hill of 1969 with an accuracy that quite often resembles that of a documentary, also including pictures of the Westway construction site, which was to be completed in 1970. Such attention to details and the insertion of photos of the time are pivotal in highlighting the reality of the facts portrayed.
Despite depicting a story of social discrimination, the film is filled with scenes of contagious joy – as when the crowd at the Mangrove chant and dance on the street, showing a lust for life that plays as a counterpoint to the grim lives of the policemen, imprisoned by their own prejudice against Black people.
McQueen has always been a master at expressing men’s struggles– whether psychological (Shame) or physical (Hunger). Here, the camera lingers on faces and small details, such as cigarette smoke, effectively evoking the characters’ anger and frustration. One of the most poignant scenes is the one where Frank is unjustly taken to an isolation room during a break from the trial. McQueen’s camera concentrates on Frank’s body and gestures, capturing his rage in a way that recalls the style employed when filming Michael Fassbender’s astonishing performance in Hunger.
Mangrove speaks of injustice, but also of the change that can only be achieved through unity. “They have tried to divide us for 400 years,” says Athleia Jones-Locointe (Letitia Wright), leader of the British Black Panther movement “the system is rotten, what are we fighting for?”. They fought and continue to fight for future generations.
With Mangrove, McQueen portrays a powerful tale of resilience that resonates through modern times; Yes, it’s time for this kind of stories to be told – and it’s time for everyone to start listening.