The Gist: West London, 1968. Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) shoos troublemakers from the facade of Mangrove, his new restaurant in the Notting Hill district. He puts a sign in the window: “Black ownership,” it reads. Fish curry, mutton curry, goat curry and his mother’s crab and dumplings are on the menu tonight, he says, tying on an apron and grabbing a chef’s knife. The room is full — of people, laughter, clinking glasses and dishes, West Indian food and, eventually, music. The steel drums come out and the party spills out into the street and there is dancing, escape, release, community, joy.
Frank says he wants a restaurant, not a battleground, but choice isn’t a luxury he has in Notting Hill. He lets Althea, Darcus and Barbara to host their Black Panther meetings above the Mangrove. He also lets them talk him into a demonstration, a march to the police station in protest of these grotesque assaults on his people and business. He might lose the restaurant, the hub of the community, but the hub of the community must be defended. They gather. Barbara holds up a severed pig’s head. “HANDS! OFF!” they shout. “BLACK! PEOPLE!” One group of police presses the crowd towards another group of police. The billy clubs come out. Chaos, violence, bloodshed.
Not too long after, the accused recruit lawyer Ian McDonald (Jack Lowden) to represent him. Darcus and Althea and Barbara choose to represent themselves. The judge will be white, the lawyers will be white, the plaintiffs are white. How will they ever be treated fairly? They decide to challenge the system itself, and all its ludicrous pomp and gowns and powdered wigs and systemic racism. These defendants will come to be known as the Mangrove 9. It won’t be easy. It never is.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an easy comparison; it’s a more famous case, very recently made into a slightly less-good, more showy and definitely more overtly written film than Mangrove. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was similarly infuriating and upsetting in its depiction of violent police prejudice, but was more keyed in on grueling intensity than McQueen is here.
Performance Worth Watching: Wright and Kirby are focused and charismatic, but Parkes is the film’s heart, carrying the weight of all the doubt and uncertainty of this drama on his shoulders in all the nonverbal moments. He’s a quiet force.
Memorable Dialogue: “Your request is rejected.” — Judge Clarke (Alex Jennings) repeats this mantra so many times, it would be funny if it wasn’t so damn infuriating.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Mangrove is enthralling, rich with life and color and authenticity. Courtroom dramas are rarely so unconcerned with procedural minutiae or focused on turning off the dialogue machine and letting its characters simply exist. Want to know what’s at stake here? The extraordinary love and liberty we see in those moments when the Mangrove bustles with spirit and voices, and we can smell the spicy curries and tobacco, and we feel the syncopated pulse of the music prompting our limbs to move and our backsides to shake.
The genre formula is intact — infuriate, then provide release — but McQueen makes the most of every moment, whether it’s a satisfying cross-examination of the cretinous Pulley, or a closeup study of Frank’s worried face, or a montage of artful dissolves, or the camera slowly rising up as an assertive and confident defendant delivers a speech, or the nauseating and uneasy swelling strings on the score as we take in the hallowed halls of an institution built by Caucasians. These are the ebbs and flows of progress.
Of course Mangrove is poignant here in the self-evident Black Lives Matter era. Of course it is. Of course it is. McQueen has said the stories he tells in Small Axe haven’t dented pop-cultural discourse, and they’re sure to house violent horrors and subsequent socio-political ripples. Mangrove is at least a reminder that institutions can be nudged toward righteousness. The story doesn’t end there — a postscript tells us as much — but it shows us there are always signs of hope if we work hard enough to find them.
Our Call: STREAM IT. One Small Axe entry down and four to go, and if subsequent chapters are only half as good as Mangrove, they’ll still be pretty great.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: .
Watch Small Axe: Mangrove on Amazon Prime