The big opener for this year’s London Film Festival comes in the form of Mangrove, directed and co-written by the incredible Steve McQueen. Mangrove is the first episode of McQueen’s Small Axe miniseries due to premiere on BBC next month. The series explores racism in Britain throughout the years with all episodes based on true stories. McQueen is one of my favourite directors so Mangrove was one of my must-sees of this year’s festival. I have previously written about McQueen’s filmography which you can read here. Mangrove tells the story of the titular restaurant, a black owned business that is constantly harassed and raided by the police from the moment it opens. The Mangrove becomes a safe haven for people of colour to be and this creates concern within the corrupt police system, particularly at the hands of PC Frank Pulley, who seems determined beyond reason to bring the Mangrove to the ground.
Shaun Parkes’ leading performance of Frank Crichlow is captivating and powerful in his aim to bring forth the struggle. All Frank wants to do is run a business but the police are unwilling to allow this to happen and will do anything to shut the Mangrove down. Initially Frank is reluctant to use the Black Panthers’ assistance as he would prefer to avoid politics but he begins to understand that the Mangrove itself is political and he can’t avoid it no matter how hard he tries. What transpires is the coming together of the black community in an effort to exploit the brutality of the police by organising a protest that begins at the Mangrove establishment. Parkes’ portrayal of Frank is moving and poignant in these uncertain times. As minorities are persecuted and stopped in the street for no reason or than the colour of their skin, Frank’s story is just as important now as it was then. McQueen’s parallels with the 1970s is clear and makes Mangrove a protest piece in itself.
Letitia Wright is stunning as Altheia Jones-LaCointe, a prominent figure in the British Black Panthers movement. As expected, she is a strong woman who seeks equality for minorities. We first see her persuading factory workers to join a union so their voices can be heard. Wright provides a powerhouse performance and this is perfectly shown in the scene when she gives her speech at the Mangrove protest. She is riveting and makes her presence known, a real force to be reckoned with. Wright’s career has gone from strength to strength in recent years and it’s brilliant to see her collaborate with Steve McQueen. She is perfectly cast as Altheia and brings that passion and fire required for the role.
The supporting cast also do a phenomenal job led by Malachi Kirby who plays activist, Darcus Howe and Sam Spruell who plays Constable Frank Pulley, an instigator of the racism towards the black community. Alex Jennings also does a great job as the upper class and uptight Judge Edward Clarke, whose bias towards the police is soon shattered as the corruption begins to seep through during the trial. The details put into everyone’s character becomes distinct and identifiable as the Mangrove Nine go to trial.
McQueen’s handling of the protest scene is done perfectly. To reflect its chaotic nature, McQueen makes use of multiple observational shots from all kinds of angles, including the observation slot in the police car. When Altheia is delivering her speech, a part of the shot centres on her shadow on a nearby car in the rain. It’s the kind of shot you would see in a cinematic feature but it works extremely well here. The power of the protesters against the police is built up and soon enough the latter begins to fight back and take away placards and signs. The brutally of the police here is delivered in a fully real way in true McQueen fashion, unflinching and unapologetic.
Despite being made for TV, McQueen does a fantastic job of making Mangrove feel like a cinematic experience. As I have previously said, he has never put a foot wrong and the passion he has for this project is evident. The detail in character development to song choices and the perfectly balanced script allows Mangrove to show the people behind the trial and the importance of their fight against the police.
Mangrove will air in the United Kingdom on BBC One on the 15th November.