Steve McQueen’s British Courtroom Drama Does Justice to a Landmark Case Against Black Activists

Ella Castle

Ask yourself: What do the words “Black Power” signify to you? That’s the question several of the Mangrove Nine put to each of the potential jurors in what would prove to be a landmark civil rights trial — one in which nine Black activists were arrested on serious charges after […]

Ask yourself: What do the words “Black Power” signify to you? That’s the question several of the Mangrove Nine put to each of the potential jurors in what would prove to be a landmark civil rights trial — one in which nine Black activists were arrested on serious charges after a public demonstration against London police harassment on Aug. 9, 1970, devolved into an incendiary example of the very thing they were protesting. It was a savvy strategy, focusing participants’ attention on what the accused felt their defense was really about: racial justice.

Steve McQueen doesn’t overtly repeat the group’s jury-screening query in “Mangrove,” the powerhouse courtroom drama that kicks off his upcoming “Small Axe” anthology series for Amazon: five stand-alone films designed to explore and elevate dimensions of Black life in Britain — from music and food to family and romance — set between 1968 and the mid-1980s. And yet, taken in toto, the project serves as the “12 Years a Slave” director’s emphatic, multifaceted response.

The New York Film Festival may have launched with Episode 2, the looser, barely narrative “Lovers Rock” (a chill reggae house party whose politics go largely unspoken), but it makes sense that McQueen’s ambitious omnibus should officially begin with “Mangrove.” In the tradition of the director’s 2008 debut, “Hunger,” McQueen delivers another rousing story of resistance, this one centered on a Black-owned Caribbean restaurant that was raided so often by police that the patrons had no choice but to push back.

Fully loaded at 128 minutes, where the other installments run closer to an hour apiece, “Mangrove” takes its name from this café, which was targeted by white authorities who resented what it represented to the local Black community. The legal proceedings don’t start until nearly the halfway mark, giving audiences a good hour to observe and consider the racist institution that these characters are up against.

As McQueen makes clear, Black Power can and does signify many things: It means strength in numbers. It means challenging institutions of white supremacy. And perhaps most importantly, it means Black people taking control of their narrative. That’s what historian C.L.R. James did when he wrote “The Black Jacobins” so as to illuminate cases when heroic Black figures served as the architects of their own advancement. And that’s what McQueen does here, approaching the near-constant, overtly race-based oppression of West Indian immigrants by police in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood as a transformative victory by Black activists against the system.

The Notting Hill of “Mangrove” looks nothing like the chic enclave this area has become after decades of gentrification, coveted for its big houses and brightly colored facades. Through a mix of clever angles and CG set extensions, McQueen turns back the clock, revealing a time when the neighborhood was far less desirable but one of the few options available to West Indians prevented from renting in most other parts of London. Here, Caribbean émigrés found affordable housing (as buildings were subdivided to accommodate multiple families), discovered others with similar experience and organized to confront the discrimination they faced.

McQueen introduces Mangrove founder Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in an illegal gambling den a long walk from his newly opened restaurant in Notting Hill — a walk that recalls that hood-mounted shot in “Widows” where Colin Farrell drives from the projects to his posh Chicago home. In modern cities, entirely different worlds can exist within a few blocks of each other. This particular stroll takes Crichlow past signs of urban change — massive construction projects going up in the distance, finishing touches on the elevated Westway extension to London’s A40 — back to the fluorescent green building he calls home.

A beat later, we meet another Frank, white police constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), lurking outside the Mangrove and sharing his racist agenda with a fellow officer: “You see, the thing about the Black man is, he’s got his place.” That place, Pulley believes, is under his boot heel, and this loathsome character makes it a personal mission to break the spirits of those who might attempt to thrive — the most risible example being a random-harassment tactic they call the “Ace of Spades.”

Pulley has decided that Crichlow and his peers are up to no good, treating Mangrove as a meeting place for “criminals, ponces and prostitutes” (there are references to shady dealings at Crichlow’s previous all-night café, El Rio, which may partly explain his biases). In any case, Mangrove was a legitimate restaurant, serving what Crichlow describes as “spicy food for a particular palate” — although there came a point, after three seemingly unprovoked police raids, when Crichlow decided to close the kitchen and dedicate the entire facility to Black activists. Compared with “Lovers Rock,” which strives to re-create the ambience of a typical blues party (excluded from white nightclubs, young Black singles organized their own in private residences), “Mangrove” never quite captures the atmosphere of the establishment itself.

When PC Pulley and his fellow bullies burst in with drug-searching warrants in hand, the focus is on their disruptive behavior more than the vibe they are harshing — which is understandable. McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons have a lot of ground to cover, and it’s their prerogative to show how disrespectfully the London police treat Crichlow and his patrons, manhandling customers and smashing up the restaurant out of spite. These are blood-boiling scenes to watch, even in cases where McQueen keeps the worst offenses off camera – as in a cockeyed 35-second shot of an aluminum strainer knocked to the floor in an empty kitchen after one of these raids.

A choice like that is pure McQueen: He draws us in with elegant yet conventional storytelling tactics, but isn’t afraid to break up the flow when the time is right to underscore a point. This may be “television” (in the sense that Amazon will release the films via streaming), but McQueen approaches it with all the seriousness of cinema, partnering with a new DP, Shabier Kirchner, to shoot in widescreen 35mm — which makes it perfectly reasonable that Cannes had planned to give the film its world premiere, along with “Lovers Rock,” before the coronavirus canceled the festival. Instead, it’s fitting that “Mangrove” should bow the same day that Netflix releases Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In McQueen’s hands, the trial of the Mangrove Nine offers another angle on the same issue: How are those who disagree with the status quo expected to demonstrate in a society that forbids them to assemble? And is it fair to treat such protesters as “militants” when law enforcement officers are so often the ones to introduce violence into the equation?

The movie re-creates the peaceful demonstration in which roughly 150 Mangrove supporters — among them Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (ensemble standout Letitia Wright of Marvel’s “Black Panther”) and local activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby, more soft-spoken yet no less impactful) — marched from one area police station to the next. “We’ve complained to the police about the police, and nothing’s been done,” they chanted, a mere two days after Jonathan P. Jackson burst into a U.S. courtroom and took the judge and jury hostage. Then, as now, the struggle to show that black lives matter was an international movement, echoed too in the demonstrators’ home countries of Trinidad and Jamaica.

At the march, the participants were reportedly outnumbered nearly two-to-one by police, and though McQueen has neither the budget nor the scope to properly capture its scale, or the fighting that erupted, his goal is to do justice to events in the courtroom, so to speak (skipping over an earlier prosecution, dismissed by the court). There, represented in part by young white lawyer Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden) — though some chose to defend themselves — the nine demonstrators and those who sat in the gallery to support them were able to do what the Chicago Seven could not: They spoke out of turn, cheered and heckled, and revealed the inherent biases of a system based in colonial thinking.

No one working today can rival Sorkin when it comes to in-court theatrics (he’s the writer who gave us “A Few Good Men,” after all), but that doesn’t seem to be McQueen’s intention. His approach is subtler, if occasionally less dramatic, lingering on details such as the black “dresses” and white wigs worn by the barristers, which reinforce a legal tradition in which Black immigrants don’t stand a chance. Early on, MacDonald motions for an all-Black jury, citing the Magna Carta clause in which men are entitled to be tried by their peers or equals. The rigid old judge (Alex Jennings) denies the request, though the defense does succeed in selecting two Black jurors.

As the case unfolds over 11 artfully compressed weeks, it’s increasingly clear that the raids, the arrests and the trumped-up charge of incitement to “riot and affray” are variations on a common goal: to disrupt and disempower the fragile community of Black immigrants that had formed around the eponymous establishment. It can often feel over-obvious when a film puts its central argument directly in a character’s mouth, but considering the genre, it’s appropriate that Darcus should be allowed to articulate the movie’s thesis in his closing remarks. As McQueen understands, the Mangrove was something more than a restaurant. It served as both a reminder of home and a haven to those persecuted by the very people sworn to protect them. And through this court battle, it represented a significant victory in a war for equality that’s every bit as relevant today.

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