MANGROVE. In yet another telling instance regarding the state of contemporary cinema, one more of its preeminent voices, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013) has transitioned to the small screen. Collaborating with the BBC and Amazon, he has created a five-part anthology series (really five movies varying in length from 60 to 120 minutes) to be released weekly until mid-December. The project, Small Axe, draws its title from a Jamaican proverb and tells stories drawn from real life about London's West Indian immigrant community between the late 1960s and early 1980s.
The first installment, Mangrove, is a feature-length episode and introduces us to the vibrant Notting Hill neighborhood, circa 1969. Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) prepares for the grand opening of the titular restaurant, serving Caribbean food and serving as a gathering place for the mostly recent émigrés of the area. Frank, we learn tangentially, had previously operated an establishment called the Rio, which came to the attention of the constabulary as a gambling den where drugs may or may not have been available. And so, based on that history but mainly on virulent systemic racism, the police come down hard on Frank and his restaurant. Led by the repellent P.C. Pulley (Sam Spruell), they conduct a number of baseless raids and arrests, waging a campaign of terror and oppression with no clear recourse for the victims. The constant harassment scares away the restaurant's customers, leaving Frank disempowered and enraged.
Enter Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright), a representative of the Black Panthers dispatched to Notting Hill to advise laborers of their rights, and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), a charismatic Trinidadian who refuses to submit to the legacy of discrimination inherent in British culture. They begin to give voice to the frustrations and rage of their community, eventually organizing a protest and march to the steps of the police station. The demonstration boils over into off-screen violence and the police seize the opportunity to respond with force. A number of the protestors are arrested and nine, Crichlow, Jones and Howe among them, are charged with inciting a riot. Further, they are to be tried in the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court, usually reserved for the trials of murder, treason and the like.
The trial of the Mangrove Nine, which takes place over the course of several months, finds the defendants fighting not only for their freedom, but also to illuminate the intrinsic, cultivated racial and economic prejudices of the British police and the entire legal system.
Here in the U.S. in 2020, there have been a great number of conversations about 1968 as a sort of spiritual predecessor. It was a year when the anguished energy of youth, Civil Rights and anti-war movements came to head. There were riots and assassinations, and the conflict in Vietnam took a turn for the intractable. The frustrations of a generation were made manifest and then, arguably, crushed and transmuted by a bigoted, corporatized infrastructure. Interestingly, we rarely discuss the same period in U.K. history, or really the experience of being Black and British, at all. Which is an unsurprising but dispiriting oversight, another example of the isolationism and exceptionalism that have lately become so visibly problematic in this country. Of course we would have little to no understanding of the parallel struggles of the county from which ours was improbably and troublingly birthed. We've been too busy actively ignoring our own culture of inequality and unfairness.
Anyway, credit is due to McQueen for bringing his tremendous narrative focus and artistic acumen to bear on a sprawling, prickly project like this one. It remains to be seen, of course, what shape the rest of the series will take. But Mangrove, while evoking a London of half a century ago, feels exceedingly current. And while it could be seen as an example of how far we have failed to come as a greater society, it is also propulsive and powerful and insistent, reminding us that change does come, even if it doesn't assume the seismic, tidal proportions we may desire. Mangrove doesn't feel quite as precise or as finely finished as some of McQueen's other work, but it exemplifies both his sumptuous, patient visual style and his insistence on thoroughly exploring subjects and stories of historical and human significance. This feels like material he is singularly equipped to render as narrative art and I'm excited and a little unnerved to see what's next. 124M. AMAZON.