The London that Steve McQueen shows us in Mangrove is a city in flux, even before the revolutionary trial that forms the heart of the film’s second half. Giant construction projects like the Westway sit half-finished, while the expansion of black businesses is met with both delight and racist hostility by the white population. In taking on the story of the trial of the Mangrove Nine, McQueen transports his audience to a woefully understudied moment of British history, one which not only had life or death consequences for those immediately involved, but was key to the birth of the London that we know today.
The Mangrove Nine were a group of black activists who, in 1970, were charged with inciting a riot against the police after taking to the streets in protest of the constant police harassment of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and his restaurant The Mangrove, which served as a West Indian community hub in Notting Hill. Though McQueen is careful to give each of the Nine a moment to shine, it’s Frank who takes the lead, alongside Black Panther student activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and crusading intellectual Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).
McQueen’s world-building here is absolutely exceptional, every little detail adding to the atmosphere and story, all the way down to the extras (the jury selection at the trial in particular is a masterclass of background casting). You’re immersed in the lives of his characters, and the slow but steady change in the atmosphere of the Mangrove from joyous celebration to cold tension after constant unprovoked police raids keeps the tension at a steady simmer. When it finally, inevitably, boils over, the protest march that follows shows McQueen at his thrilling best as a set-piece director, and it’s impossible to not be swept along by the fury, movement, and even optimism of the moment.
This is aided by Mica Levi’s urgent war cry of a score, which is easily in contention for 2020’s best. All drums and aggressive strings, it drives the action both on the streets and in the courtroom, hammering home just how high the stakes are. This same righteous passion can be found in the performances, all of which are excellent, especially Parkes and Wright. They each find a compelling, fiery mix of anger, hope, and frustration, burning at the inequities of the British justice system. There’s also a deeply moving exhaustion at the heart of Parkes’s performance, an aching desire to just be allowed to run his restaurant without having to face off against the bigoted forces of the status quo.
Once in the courtroom, McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons have a lot of fun with the dialogue, as the Nine pull apart the lousy, obviously corrupt case of the prosecution. Jones-LeCointe and Howe chose to represent themselves at the trial, and their direct cross-examinations of the police witnesses, including the wildly racist and insecure Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell), are funny and cathartic. The ease with which the defence dismantles the prosecution does rob the finale of some tension – unlike, say, the 13th Amendment vote in Lincoln, McQueen can’t quite get you to forget how the trial really played out – but these scenes are sharply written and more imaginatively shot than the vast majority of courtroom dramas.
Mangrove forms the first ‘episode’ of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe series, to be broadcast later this year on the BBC, but would feel right at home as a standalone movie with a full cinema release. That it is to be followed by four more McQueen movies is an absurdly exciting prospect, and if these subsequent films can keep up the urgency, vibrancy, and sheer filmmaking swagger found here, then what look to be an otherwise bleak final few months of 2020 might just have a redeeming feature.