As you’d expect from a film dedicated to George Floyd, Steve McQueen’s latest, which opens the London Film Festival, contains many weighty and sombre moments. That said, the true story of how a group of Black activists made legal history, in the early Seventies, is also giddy and gleeful. To borrow a line from one of the main characters, some of the jokes here “could make a stuffed bird laugh”.
Mangrove begins in 1968, with Trinidadian entrepreneur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) sauntering towards his new restaurant on All Saints Road, where his cynical aunt Betty (a scene-stealing Llewella Gideon) is holding the fort. Frank is gorgeous and, it’s implied, may not be the most loyal of lovers. He also has bourgeois tendencies (he’s the proud owner of a cappuccino maker) and gets tetchy around tardy youngsters. He is, in other words, a well-rounded human being and, as played by Parkes, magnetic.
It’s easy to understand why the The Mangrove attracts everyone from Frank’s gambling buddies to leading lights of the British Black Panther movement, tomboyish science student, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Bambi-eyed intellectual, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). And just as easy to understand why racist members of the Metropolitan Police force, led by chippy constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), hate everything The Mangrove stands for.
In tense scenes, Pulley’s team raid the restaurant, week after week. This leads to a grass-roots protest which, thanks to heavy-handed policing, leads to violence. Nine members of the community – including Crichlow, Jones-LeCointe, Howe and Howe’s tightly-wound girlfriend, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) – find themselves summoned to the Old Bailey, accused of inciting a riot.
Jones-LeCointe (who decides she doesn’t need a white lawyer to represent her and proves brilliant at cross-examining witnesses) is a perfect fit for Wright, who glows with intelligence and has a saucy smile that she quietly unfurls in a standout scene with Sandall. Watch her chin tremble, during an encounter with Parkes. She’s consumed by emotion and I bet the real Altheia (credited as one of the film’s consultants) was touched by this homage.
McQueen’s precise visuals, as ever, astound. A displaced colander takes centre stage, and rises to the occasion beautifully, as Frank and his friends are beaten up by the police. Another wonderful sequence combines superimposition, archive photos and the Symarip ska classic, Skinhead Moonstomp, to show what’s happening in Notting Hill as the trial drags on.
McQueen’s film is bound to be controversial (that he doesn’t judge Beese for carrying a pig’s head during the demonstration will infuriate some viewers). He’s showing a movement, warts and all, and if you google the facts, you’ll find he’s stuck to them.
Notting Hill, for two decades, has been synonymous with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Fingers crossed, that’s about to change.
Mangrove is part of the Small Axe anthology and will air on the BBC on November 15