The story of the Mangrove Nine, when a group of Black West Indie-British activists fought back against racist police raids in a tense series of courtroom showdowns, seemed to pitch itself as a movie even when it unfolded in 1970. It only took fifty years, but writer-director Steve McQueen’s Mangrove works overtime to fill the gap, resulting in a delectable crowd-pleaser both specific to its moment, but also a story that seems timeless. Produced as part of the filmmaker’s ambitious five-film Small Axe anthology about West Indie Londoners across several decades, Mangrove is a taut and thrilling judicial drama that transcends the genre even while acknowledging its barriers. Just as he used the heist genre as a Trojan horse for sociopolitical concerns, McQueen turns the courtroom formula inside out. In following the trial, Mangrove delves into the usual assemblage of passionate monologues about equal rights and dedication to the cause. But it’s also grounded in a detailed ecosystem so rich with the sentiments of the moment that it eventually makes an old routine feel new.
McQueen, throughout his filmography, has exceled at building immersive environments and positioning conflicted people locked within them. In Mangrove, the atmosphere is full of pulsating life, so palpable you can smell it, but that might just be the kitchen: The title refers to the West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill run by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a stoic Trinidadian immigrant whose spicy cuisine provided a sanctuary for London’s evolving community of artists and intellectuals at the time. Keen on remaining apolitical until he’s left no choice, Crichlow provides the ideal centerpiece for a movie steeped in an age-old conflict between the safest option and the right one. “This is a restaurant, not a battleground,” he says at one point. The movie tracks his growing awareness that it’s obviously both. Faced with relentless police raids on non-existent charges led by the heinous officer Frank Pulley (a slimy Sam Spurrell), Crichlow eventually joins forces with Black Panther leader Althiea Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and others to organize a protest march — a feat that inevitably lead to violence as the police lashed out.
In an ensuing eleven-week trial, the Mangrove Nine — which also included broadcaster Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), and his partner Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) — fought back against baseless charges that they had incited the violence. Two of the defendants, Jones-LeCointe and Howe, chose to defend themselves; the others relied on a white attorney, Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden). The resulting trial received a lot of press at the time, but McQueen ignores that side of the spectacle to play up the stakes within the courtroom, from the efforts to land an all-Black jury (which was denied) to the lively interrogation sessions driven by the defendants themselves (which was very effective). When Mangrove arrives at the trial, it settles into familiar proceedings, with Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) glaring down on the defendants as if they’ve already lost, Crichlow fretting over whether a guilty plea might salvage his odds, and the debates growing more heated as the drama presses on.
But McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alastair Hiddons, doesn’t rush into all of that. The first act of Mangrove is suffused with the textures of its setting, from the vibrant restaurant-goers to the jubilant street parties that take place outside. It’s here that the movie bears its closest resemblance to Lovers Rock (the first Small Axe entry to premiere on the festival circuit, though Mangrove will be broadcast first) by showing how communal bonds woven into the fabric of everyday life have the power to catalyze more precise acts of solidarity. Still, Crichlow doesn’t start out looking to shake up the establishment. Parkes delivers a truly riveting performance simmering with anger and frustration as the character attempts to arouse support from local politicians and white legal advisors, until it becomes clear that the system has been stacked against him. “Your strategy of relying on the white establishment will never work,” Howe tells him. Jones-LeCointe puts it in blunter terms. “We can’t be the victims. We have to be protagonists,” she says. “It’s them and we.”
Her point is well taken. From the harrowing raids to the breathless strategy sessions that surround the trial, the Mangrove Nine push back on persecution from every direction, and Frank’s subtle expressions track his evolving assessment of the situation at hand. Throughout, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner employ incredible, unconventional methods to capture these otherwise standard scenes; filled with lingering, composed, and static staging. He manages to turn the usually straightforward backdrop of the courtroom into a visually dynamic environment, with detail-oriented camerawork and hefty closeups that encapsulate the real-time pressures as they unfold. It’s so well-handled, in fact, that it exacerbates some of the clichéd aspects of the script, including a few stagey monologues spoiled by self-awareness and characters so aware of the history they’re participating in that they call it out as such. But the proceedings grow more and more involving as the suspense builds, and by the time Kirby delivers the remarkable closing statement it cuts deep. As the verdict is read, the camera sits with mounting intensity on Crichlow’s face, resulting in what might be the best approach to this familiar movie moment since Sidney Lumet’s swooping crane shot onto Paul Newman in The Verdict.
Through sheer serendipity, Mangrove has found its way into the world at the same time that Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 makes its way around. Both movies restage major, timeless historical court cases, yet I expect that to be their only similarity. The Mangrove Nine were living their day-to-day until trouble came straight for them. And while they mostly found the justice they were looking for, McQueen makes it clear that Crichlow’s battle didn’t end with one victory. That seems to be the guiding principle of the Small Axe project as a whole, with the filmmaker etching out an untold history (at least, untold on this scale) one substantial chapter at a time. Considered on its own terms, Mangrove is first-rate filmmaking even when it falls into a tried-and-true recipe, reaching a comfortable pitch that feels familiar but also admirably askew. But the bigger picture — the sense of purpose percolating beneath each scene — amounts to a cinematic séance with a long-neglected past. Bring on the next chapter. Formally vivid and electrifying, Mangrove is an infuriating and thrilling courtroom drama enlivened with a rich, tactile milieu; immersed in pure unadulterated emotion with vitality coursing through its veins.
Mangrove premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video as part of the Small Axe anthology on November 20