The Small Axe anthology continues to unveil itself with aplomb. Mangrove is Steve McQueen at some of his angriest, keen to bring the story of the Mangrove Nine to screens, shedding light on a bit of history too few are aware of. Dark without being bleak, and gritty without being a brutal sit, Mangrove is one of the more complete offerings at the 58th New York Film Festival. A mix of biopic, courtroom drama, and stinging rebuke to racist policing, it’s also a very timely picture. The world could use this flick, much like The Trial of the Chicago 7 is essential viewing this year as well.
Mangrove is an angry movie, though the anger is more than justified, considering the racism on display. McQueen is endeavoring to rile you up, using every arrow in his quiver to do so. The result is a film that’s similar to a lot of things he’s done before, but also with a bit of a new slant. What more can you ask from one of the most talented filmmakers out there?
As mentioned before, this is just one of five parts in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series. NYFF 2020 includes two other installments in Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue, though this one got tapped for the special treatment. This review only talks about Mangrove, but keep in mind that it’s meant to overall be consumed as part of something larger (this is to be shown as part one of the anthology). This will also be the case when Red, White and Blue gets reviewed in the days to come.
This is the story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and the Mangrove Nine. Frank is the owner of a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill called Mangrove, which is a cultural hub for the community. It’s also a constant target for abuse from the police. His business is unjustly raided time and time again, with Pc Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) in particular operating with a racist hatred for him. Eventually, this boils over and in 1970, a peaceful protest is launched in support of the shop owner. During the protest, Frank, as well as the leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), along with activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot. Opting to fight for their rights and against this blatant discrimination, a high profile trial ensues.
Having their day in court, the Mangrove Nine fight back against the police, as well as a judge in Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) who does not seem to care much for their cause. However, the more they hammer on the shaky testimony of Pulley and his cohorts, the more the odds seem to tip in their favor.
The fury on display in Mangrove is present in all aspects of the production, from the acting to the filmmaking. McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons don’t hold back. They never preach, either, allowing the visceral injustices on display to be what fuels the fire. It’s an effective approach, especially during the trial sequences, which brew with tension.
Steve McQueen does a bit of the Paul Greengrass act here, mixing the unflinching nature of Hunger with something like Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday. Playing as close to a docudrama as it does a biopic or courtroom flick, Mangrove sees the director keeping the focus on the faces of his characters, concentrating on their exasperation. Tension mounts during the trial, especially as you see moments where the momentum is swinging towards the defendants. A cross-examination by one of Pulley is an absolute gem of a scene and a highlight for the movie, overall.
The cast is a strong aspect of the picture. Shaun Parkes is the picture of righteous indignation, while Letitia Wright is driven and forceful. They’re the ones who make an impression throughout, though other cast members besides Parks and Wright are solid. This is just a case of people standing out from the pack. You simply connect with them the most.
Mangrove will be a tough sit for some, though well worth making time for. It’s not as pleasing an experience as the upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7, but it’s not meant to be, either. Playing at NYFF and ending up as one of the fest’s better titles, this is a biopic that’s meant to leave you angry. McQueen succeeds with flying colors, that’s for sure.