Mangrove (2020)

Steve McQueen

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Jack Lowden, Sam Spruell, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell, Jumayn Hunter, Gary Beadle

After striking awards gold with 12 Years A Slave, it was announced director Steve McQueen would write and direct an anthology film-series for the BBC. Known as Small Axe, the aim is to tell the experiences of West Indian life in Britain. The first instalment depicts the true story of the Mangrove Nine, who were arrested for protesting police brutality, and the subsequent trial which took place at the Old Bailey.

Looming over the tale is the spectre of Enoch Powell, and the hateful Rivers of Blood speech he gave in 1968. In that same year, Frank Crichlow opens a small restaurant called The Mangrove, which becomes a place for relaxation and friendship for the Black citizens of Notting Hill. In one memorable scene, the celebration spills onto the streets, as the Mangrove patrons dance to steel drum music with such infectious joy. It's seen as a safe space, but Frank didn't set out with such lofty aspirations. He just wanted to run a respectable business, something he regrets not achieving with his previous venture.

Unfortunately, the restaurant is victim to targeted persecution by the police, with their regular intimidation tactics making people fearful to step inside. Shaun Parkes exceptionally captures Frank's struggle, as his tempers bubble over from the constant desecration of what he tirelessly built up. His business becomes a vital hub for activism, something circumstances drew him into, despite tirelessly trying to avoid.

While Steve McQueen has crafted a celebration of Black life in Britain, he's also delivered a tragedy, where such merriment is gleefully shut down by the oppressive forces misusing their power. An early scene shows police officers playing a card game, which leads to the officers going out to wrongfully arrest the first Black person they see. This leads to a terrifying moment as they chase down an innocent child, as though it were nothing but mere sport.

It all leads to a demonstration on the streets, intent on protesting against the racial hatred the citizens have suffered from the Metropolitan Police. Predictably, the police respond to this peaceful protest by instigating a fight, and assaulting the innocent civilians in a horrifying display of their insidious nature. In the aftermath of this, an example is to be made out of some of the activists. They're brought in to stand trial at Old Bailey, at the behest of an unfair judge who acts out double-standards in favour of the police.

You can feel the anger rising in the defendants, as they're asked to trust in a corrupt and unfair system which constantly victimises them, as it breaks them down until they're made to plead guilty. Their aim is to push back against it, so the next generation won't also fall victim to it. These activists are brought alive by exceptional talents, with Letitia Wright especially being compelling as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a member of the Black Panther party. Malachi Kirby delivers an impassioned performance as Darcus Howe, while Rochenda Sandall brings Barbara Beese alive with a livewire personality, and an underlying vulnerability.

If I had one issue, it's how noticeably this is a story of two halves, and the first half feels stronger. In spite of this, you're continuously invested in how it unfolds, swept up in the emotions, and hoping these nine receive the best possible verdict. Above all else, Steve McQueen has created a necessary piece of British history which deserves to be shown in schools.

Mangrove will premiere on BBC One 15th November in the UK, and on Amazon Prime 20th November in the US. Following that, the remaining instalments of Small Axe will air weekly.