Steve McQueen’s work was lauded with much critical acclaim when he directed historical saga 12 Years a Slave. For his latest effort, he tells another important true story of racial prejudice, but this time it’s much closer to home. The first episode of the Small Axe mini-series, Mangrove follows modest restaurateur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) as he opens a West Indian eatery in the Notting Hill district of West London. His place becomes a lively neighbourhood hub for the black community and after continuous harassment from the local authorities, he is encouraged by Black Panther Movement leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) to make a stand. Their peaceful protest soon descends into chaos, leading to an emotionally-charged trial.
As much as this is a dark story fuelled by anger and frustration, McQueen ensures that the narrative and the accompanying soundtrack celebrates the joyous nature and values of his Caribbean heritage. The smart inclusion of uplifting scenes filled with fun and laughter in the beginning gives added heft to the trauma the community endures. When one of the energetic gatherings is cruelly cut short by a police raid, he uses a signature long take that lingers on the still, silent aftermath. As strong as the first half is, the courtroom drama in the second half raises the bar even more.
As those in the dock decide to self-represent, the legal battle ensues, and the dialogue goes into overdrive. Transforming the Old Bailey into what feels like a theatrical stage, McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons have crafted a screenplay full of powerfully engaging monologues that enhance and elevate the stakes. The script is sensational, and the visual flair is upheld throughout; the camera gives the grandiose setting a cold chill that suggests institutional imprisonment, the walls closing in on the defendants who became known as the Mangrove Nine.
The cast is made up of an eclectic ensemble, with so many familiar faces from film and television coming together brilliantly. Shaun Parkes takes centre stage and the unwavering passion he brings to the protagonist Frank Crichlow is the beating heart of the piece. He’s excellent in early moments shared with Sam Spruell, who portrays the despicably xenophobic PC Frank Pulley with unnerving menace. As the initially intimate tale expands to a broader scale, Letitia Wright formidably takes on the heavy lifting in the film’s most poignant sequences. As a slight respite to the heavy material, Jack Lowden is a breath of fresh air as Ian MacDonald QC, the unorthodox barrister that ardently acted on behalf of Frank and his peers. Taking great pleasure in going against the grain to challenge the bureaucratic system, this spirited performance adds yet another dimension to the plot.
Shining a spotlight on another little-known, yet hugely influential story, Steve McQueen excels in putting social realism on the screen with style and vigour. Mangrove is essential viewing, especially in the current climate; urgent, timely, magnificent cinema from one of the finest British storytellers working today.