A number of the films that’ve snuck through the bars of the cinematic prison that is 2020 are films that chastise many of the institutional issues that have suffocated the most vulnerable for decades. Recently we saw a damning indictment of the American justice system with The Trial of the Chicago 7, and now we have the leading instalment of Steve McQueen’s cultural shift 5-part mini-series Small Axe, The Trial of the Mangrove 9, or more simply, Mangrove.

In 1968, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened a restaurant. The restaurant, the titular Mangrove, became a hub for London’s West Indian community, a place for them to meet, hang out, dance, and party the night away, day after day, night after night. After being subject to persistent raids from the Metropolitan Police, Crichlow, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) band together and peacefully march on Notting Hill police station against the raids, violence breaks out between the protestors and the police (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), and the Mangrove team are sentenced to trial for conspiracy to incite a riot. Here we go again.

In the pre-film interview with Steve McQueen, McQueen talks about how this project has been in the works for years, and its release this year – of all the years – was merely a coincidence, but it does serve as a resonant reminder of the fight Black people all over the world are still fighting. Per McQueen, Mangrove takes place in 1970, but it could’ve taken place yesterday. The message McQueen delivers with this film is arguably more important than ever, and the final few information drops in the film just as it reaches its climax are as much a punch to the gut as any of the other shocking narrative moments we witness in Mangrove.

Small Axe is sure to shake up the notion of what exactly goes into a quote-unquote made-for-TV film. McQueen’s reputation precedes him as a filmmaker who makes beautiful films about hard-hitting subject matter, and McQueen approaches Mangrove with the exact same flair for cinematic storytelling as he did when he approached Hunger, 12 Years A Slave, or Widows. McQueen utilises stillness and individual frames with maximum impact in mind; a gorgeous shot of the ceiling at the Crown Court with Mangrove’s rousing, sublime score by Mica Levi to underline the severity of their situation, or one of the more sinister shots of a spinning colander I’ve ever seen put to film, McQueen gives this pure Hollywood panache.

As with most true crime tales, reality is often stranger than fiction; Mangrove is no different. The film’s entire second half is dedicated to the court case, and this is where the film truly shines. Watching it with a crowd that had a noticeably large Black majority made it seem like I was at one of the infamous midnight screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Audience members were shouting at the screen in frustration (“are you suggesting that a member of the Metropolitan Police would fabricate evidence?” received as visceral a reaction as I’ve heard towards a moment in many years), calling for Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) to be smacked, and shouting incredulous questions at the screen as the prosecution undertook its laughable case against the Mangrove 9.

In many courtroom dramas, the audience is placed in the shoes of the jury, make a judgement for themselves and this incites discussion afterwards. Here, McQueen and his co-writer, Alastair Siddons, feed into the farcical nature of the case and merely present us with one ludicrous moment after another, the highlight of which is Darcus’ tremendous, hilarious defence that ruminates on whether four police officers are able to watch events unfold simultaneously through a tiny letter-box-sized window in the side of their riot van. We are less part of the jury and more part of the crowd sat in the rafters above, watching along in disbelief. I can’t fathom the number of celebratory fist pumps that occurred over the course of the film, I know I was responsible for at least three of them.

Cleverly focusing on three key players of the Mangrove 9 affords the film the opportunity to focus its storytelling and create genuine catharsis as the trial runs its course. Shaun Parkes is terrific as Frank Crichlow, showcasing just how infuriating, frustrating and painful being put on trial for simply owning a restaurant while being Black is. He remains largely quiet in court, suggesting this isn’t a new thing for poor Frank, and he understands what he needs to do to earn a minimum sentencing. Frank is often seen on the verge of or in tears at his predicament, but the power Frank has as the unassuming figurehead of the Mangrove 9 follows him everywhere. He is someone an entire community look up to as their leader en route to becoming the touted Godfather of Black Radicalism. Frank bears this burden throughout, and Parkes gives him that everyman quality that tells us that this might just be too much for him to handle but he does it anyway because that’s what his people need him to do.

Altheia and Darcus, meanwhile, are anything but quiet. Wright and Kirby are given the flashier highlight reel in Mangrove, with both having eloquent, powerful monologues to deliver on several occasions. Altheia’s rousing megaphone speech – no doubt intentionally framed in front of an under-construction tower block in a powerful homage to Grenfell – and Darcus’ case for the defence in court are packed full of brilliant sound bites to inspire the masses to stand up for what’s right. While they may not deliver as powerful a performance as Shaun Parkes, they flank him superbly on their collision course with the British judiciary system.

Small Axe, or the parts we’ve seen so far, are all focused on Black culture and celebrating it as much as the justice system was intent on tearing it down. In one of the film’s standout sequences, McQueen places his camera in the middle of a bustling street party where music dominates, the grill is sizzling, and people can barely converse over the euphoric atmosphere. It’s a gorgeous sequence, and holds even more power when contrasted against the unprovoked police raid that follows in the next scene. This is Mangrove in a nutshell. A celebration of Black culture against adversity from the powers that be, and just how difficult it was for those involved in the Battle for the Mangrove. The Battle for the Mangrove may have been mercifully finished, but the war rages on.

As an opening statement, Mangrove delivers quite the hammer blow against the prosecution. It’s a rousing tale of triumph against adversity anchored by a stellar Shaun Parkes performance. As gorgeous visually as it is aurally, Mangrove is a must-watch and is sure to be a crowd-pleasing entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, which comes to the BBC/Amazon Prime in late November and early December.

Rating: ★★★★★

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