I’ve been thinking about James Baldwin lately. Ask any writer about ‘baring one’s soul into the craft’, then Baldwin’s words become something to aspire to: beautifully articulated, thoughtful, reflective – words that cut through the noise with a truthful essence that resonates today. And if there was ever a quote that summed up the state of Black lives across the diaspora, it’s this: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” It becomes poignantly apt that those words sweep into my mind as I watched Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
I hate using the word ‘timely’. In my opinion, it’s an overused, buzzword terminology that doesn’t begin to cut through the heart of the matter. It’s easy to see the relevancy and connect the dots; 2020 has been a cesspool cauldron of emotions following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless lives named and unnamed. The subsequent protest movement over the summer brought the entire world to its knees in a global wake-up call. McQueen does what he does best with all his films, regardless of time. Mangrove is no different; it’s a potent and unflinching portrayal of a never-ending cycle that as a country, we have failed to reconcile with.
For the uninitiated, Mangrove (part of the Small Axe anthology), tells the powerful story of the Mangrove 9 who were arrested and falsely accused of agitation, incitement, and affray in the aftermath of their peaceful protest against police brutality and discrimination. Their story paved the way for one of the most significant court battles in British history at the Old Bailey.
There are parallels that McQueen immediately brings to the surface. One is our education. Ashamedly, I was unaware of this story. It feels somewhat ignorant to not know as a Black British woman, but I would imagine many will be in the same boat considering how Black stories within British history are forgotten, erased, or never taught in schools. It’s easy to go through society with a disconnecting void. But true to McQueen’s style, Mangrove brings this grand story with such an artistic verve, that it makes an ardent case to be included in the national curriculum. But for the time being, he brings the education right to our doorsteps. The second is Black ownership. Mangrove doesn’t escape another harrowing tale that was brought to the consciousness recently thanks to HBO’s Watchmen – the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Not just the tragedy that beset it (and there are symbolic connections to that too), but what it represented – a home from home, a sanctuary. McQueen vibes in the culture, and through music, food, dance, and the community spirit of togetherness, it becomes a beautiful encapsulation of Black joy and resilience with the Mangrove restaurant serving as the hub of that activity. It’s the intricate balance that holds Mangrove together, which becomes a growing sensation to treasure and hold onto as a viewer.
What transpires next is not for the faint-hearted. Like all of McQueen’s films, they’re an emotional assault on the senses, and the devastation that underpins his latest venture is enough to send anyone into a pit of rage. The Mangrove becomes a target for endless police raids, harassment, and dubious charges. In one horrific scene, it’s given an ominous foreboding where officers partake in a target practice initiation; they play darts and draw an ace from a deck of playing cards to hunt down the first ‘Black Bastard’ they see.
Co-written by McQueen and writer Alastair Siddons, Mangrove (much like the previously mentioned Baldwin quote) understands the rage and the senseless injustice. They delve deep into the psychosis of the protest movement and weave a multi-layered and nuanced conversation on Blackness and the societal trauma inflicted upon a generation. Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the racist and derogatory statements, ruthless intimidation and the hunting down of Black bodies are catalysts in a reality that has swapped the bondage of slavery for rigged institutions and archaic systems designed to keep Black people as second class citizens. I know this, and so does its director. But it is laid out with unapologetic intent as justifiable reasons and context for why ‘enough is enough’.
And it culminates in an uprise in community activism and revolution. Mika Levi’s score is a slow rise of atmospheric tension. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Chris Dickens vividly capture the chaos as McQueen throws in subtle homages and cinematic touches to his previous films.
But the beauty behind the script is how it repeatedly de-mystifies its concept, refusing to peddle down to familiar stereotypes or white saviour tropes when it comes to historical biopics. “We must be protagonists of our stories,” and rightly so – McQueen and Siddons keep its focus and attention where it needs to be. Just like McQueen’s previous film Widows (a film that deserved more love), its magnetic ensemble cast does the emotional heavy lifting as the film transitions into an explosive courtroom drama. Once again, the brilliance is in the familiarity, thinking we’ve seen it all before. But it carries on with the same, gripping intensity which gloriously subverts our expectations yet reinforce the prejudicial biases of systemic racism.
As Frank Crichlow, Shaun Parkes delivers a phenomenal leading performance. Through piercing eyes, we see the quiet storms overwhelm him as he grows from restaurant owner trying to run a respectable business into a community leader and activist. In one rousing scene, inexplicably and disgustingly detained by the courts, you feel the wrath and simultaneous vulnerability as he’s trapped like a caged animal in a prison cell. Malachi Kirby is brilliantly compelling as Darcus Howe. But most notably, Mangrove carves a powerful space for Black women – another fulcrum of our society that is rarely paid attention to. In McQueen’s eyes, Black women are never left out of the conversation. Their involvement in the movement is never sanitised or watered down. Power with a multi-faceted agency to their voices, actress Letitia Wright wears those values on her heart in every scene. As Altheia Jones-Lecointe, leader of the British Black Panther movement, it’s a career-defining performance that is deserving of accolades.
It’s Steve McQueen at his most ferocious, most brutal and visceral best, a filmmaking feat that lays down a significant marker as one of best films of the year. You will be moved. You will be heartbroken. But you will also be immersed and swept away by its enriched beauty and attention to detail. This is a story of the past, the present and the future, proof positive on the type of stories we need more of – stories about the untold and the forgotten. And if there is a profound, lingering thought that Mangrove leaves with its audience, it’s that the war is far from over. With McQueen’s deft touch that confronts its circumstances head on, that is a reality we all must face.
MANGROVE (PART OF THE SMALL AXE ANTHOLOGY) screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. On BBC One and BBC iPlayer 15th November 2020.