In the words of C.L.R. James: “great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realization, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian.”
In characterizing the Small Axe project, Steve McQueen has cited this quote from James, the Trinidadian historian, journalist, and author of the 1938 text The Black Jacobins, — in Mangrove, the director brings this sentiment to life, and masterfully fulfills the role of the incisive and dedicated artist-as-historian.
This stylish, late-1960s-set tale is both a passionate courtroom drama, a semi-documentarian retelling of a ‘timely’ Black story, and much more. Perhaps the first true masterpiece of 2020, Mangrove demonstrates McQueen’s unparalleled artistry and intelligence as a filmmaker, and the pride and resilience of an often silenced community, whose astonishing experiences are finally being acknowledged. Copies of The Black Jacobins were handed out to everyone involved with Small Axe, rather understandably: James’s words inform the direction and execution of Mangrove on numerous levels, as the film diligently illuminates history by emphasizing environment, movement, tactility, texture, proximity, and humanity.
The story begins in Notting Hill, 1968, and recreates the true events closely. Frank Crichlow, played with a sincere live-wire intensity by Shaun Parkes, opens the Mangrove Restaurant, a lively and warm place well-loved by many and deeply valued by the local West Indian community. Local activists frequent the establishment, including Darcus Howe, played with reserved power by Malachi Kirby, and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leader in the British Black Panther Party, brought to life by an excellent Letitia Wright.
Though the restaurant and its customers have displayed no impropriety other than enjoying themselves while Black, the presence of so many contented and confident non-white people quickly draws animosity from local police forces. Like conscious artists should do, McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons are clear to show that though the draconian PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) is a particularly cruel and inhumane oppressor, the disease of racism and white supremacy infected many, many members of the Metropolitan Police force at the time.
Perhaps to ground the film in unquestionable believability, McQueen and Siddons omitted a few of the juicier details regarding the Mangrove’s clientele, which regularly included the likes of Nina Simone, Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Ross, Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix — however, the unconscionable cruelty and harassment of the local policemen’s behavior are entirely accurate.
As the film depicts, the Mangrove was indeed raided incessantly by the police, over and over without good reason and with increasingly violent results. A striking example of McQueen’s attention and commendable restraint lies in the extremity and brevity of these scenes of racist harassment; many might aim to shock and frighten with these scenes, but McQueen and Siddons keep the terror exactly the right length to express all the necessary dynamics without subjecting anyone to the all-too-familiar sight of authoritarian forces attacking Black citizens. It is a wise and compassionate decision, and other films about similar subjects might do well to take note.
Howe and Jones-LaCointe eventually convince Crichlow to help them organize a protest against the actions of the police, and in the ensuing frenzy of the officers’ violent overreaction, nine protestors are arrested. The trial of the Mangrove Nine has survived in a few history textbooks and in the minds of many since its paradigm-shifting verdict in 1970, but the details and importance of the story certainly deserve more attention in modern society. McQueen’s film delivers in every regard on that front, sticking close to the real-life details and engaging with the twists and turns of the narrative with consistent maturity, depth, and empathy.
Like Lovers Rock, and all the entries of the Small Axe anthology, Mangrove was shot by Shabir Kirchner, whose eye for texture, and delicate movements of the camera are captivating and staggeringly clever. With the help of impeccable casts and crews over the years, McQueen has mastered the heist film, the prison film, and (to an extent) the party film, but here he devours the trial film. He directs his actors and technicians expertly, and together they steep the legal proceedings that comprise the back half of the narrative in ingenious compositions and unforgettable performances. Every single actor present turns in a vibrant and memorable performance, but the outstanding trio of Kirby, Wright, and Parkes displays a striking power and depth within each word they utter and every moment of passion they express. McQueen has likened Parkes to a young Al Pacino in his energy and spiky believability, which seems spot-on — he’s not unlike both Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik of Dog Day Afternoon and his Arthur Kirkland of …And Justice for All, two passionate men of blistering intensity whose righteousness and complexity fuels a compelling inner tumult, much like Crichlow’s.
Though it may seem simplistic, McQueen’s particularly impressive quality lies in his attention to detail. Many shots begin by peering away from the center of attention, with a glance at the corner of a room or towards an empty sidewalk, while something of monumental importance is happening in the periphery. This technique imbues Mangrove with an uncanny sense of presence, as though the viewer is standing where a real person once stood fifty-odd years ago, watching justice and injustice struggle for dominance on the streets of London and in its halls of law. Rarely, if ever, has a film weaved such a thorough, confident, and effective tale out of the notions of environment, freedom, necessity, and possibility, as they unfurl in the context of racialized space and Black history.
Mangrove is a masterwork on multiple levels, and I cannot help but lament the absence of Cannes this year for yet another reason: McQueen, with near-certainty, would have been up for an award — either Best Director, Best Screenplay or, very likely, the Palme d’Or itself. That is, of course, only a hypothetical, but take from this abstract idea a guarantee that Mangrove deserves the exultation it will almost definitely receive. It’s delightful to see one of the planet’s greatest living filmmakers continue to elevate Black human beings and craft engrossing, intelligent films in which they can flourish, emote, and finally, honestly, deliver the truth.