Oscar-winning writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) is indisputably one of the great British filmmakers. For years he has consistently produced sublime films that exhibit the very best of the human spirit in the face of terrible plights. With Mangrove, the first film in an anthology entitled Small Axe, McQueen revisits a vital moment in British history that feels ultimately timely.
Mangrove is tasked with telling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists charged with inciting riots at a protest against the police’s targeting of the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill. This film paints an uncomfortable, shameful picture of historical racial prejudice in this country that rings far too true still in 2020. This story, whilst historical, offers much food for thought on the current debate surrounding racism in the police. Depicting repeated raids carried out by blatantly racist police, looking for any chance or excuse to hurt/arrest people further highlights the need for the Black Lives Matter movement.
From a visual perspective, the raids, the demonstration and a violent manhandling during the court scene create searingly moving images that stick with you. The images of protest, activists with megaphones passionately delivering speeches condemning the police and supporting the Black community are a reflection of our times. These images, reminiscent of John Boyega’s moving Hyde Park speech, offer a sad reminder that these crucial protests are still wholly necessary. Furthermore, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner beautifully uses silhouettes and shadows to devastating effect. These faceless fighters and victims give a resonating message to the community that whilst the fear of racist attacks is universal, so is the fight for equality.
Whilst the film’s themes are often bleak and necessarily so, it equally showcases the brilliant warmth of the vibrant Notting Hill community. The titular Mangrove restaurant is right at the very heart of it. We see colourful clothes, cookouts, steel pan players, people dancing and singing in the street that provide scenes of joy, laughter and unity amongst a saddening backdrop. These scenes, in particular, are a testament to the film’s phenomenal production and costume design. The importance of culture and identity in the film is never overstated, it’s the glue that holds these communities together in times of strife, creating “a home away from home” as mentioned by many of the Mangrove’s patrons.
At the centre of the film is a vitally important story about some truly inspiring people, elevated by a razor-sharp script and a faultless ensemble cast. McQueen and Alastair Siddons script is rife with passionate dialogue that transcends the medium and appeals to the humanity of its’ audience, whilst retaining the necessary bite a courtroom drama should possess.
Expertly leading the film is Letitia Wright as activist Altheia Jones-Lecointe, Shaun Parkes as Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow and Malachi Kirby as the late, great activist Darcus Howe. These performances are the lynchpins of the film, serving as the main pieces of its emotional puzzle and given the most affecting moments. Wright and Parkes, in particular, are easily at potential awards buzz levels. However, the whole cast is simply superb, the actors bounce off of one another and it’s easy to make immediate emotional connections to each member of the story, both positively and negatively speaking.
The technical elements of the film are equally impressive. Along with the aforementioned cinematography and production/costume design, the film’s sound is also delightfully crafted. The sound of chants, stomping feet, music all effortlessly intertwine without reducing dialogue to background noise. Equally, the infrequent yet haunting score by Mica Levi combines with shrewd song choices that offer the perfect blend of atmosphere to proceedings.
It’s quite stunning just how effectively Steve McQueen has captured the zeitgeist with Mangrove. The film’s historical backdrop is one that so needlessly mirrors our society, yet carries the kind of emotional weight and prevailing spirit that offers hope in these very dark times. Through outstanding performances, technical prowess and a tear-inducing crescendo, you can’t help but feel a wave of emotion created by the film’s overwhelming messages. Essential viewing and without a doubt one of the films of the year.
Words by Elliott Jones
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.