Director: Steve McQueen | 2h 4mins | Drama
Based on the true story of the Mangrove 9, Steve McQueen’s latest instalment in the Small Axe series dramatises the story of the protesters fighting against police brutality during the late 1960’s in Notting Hill.
Spanning across multiple decades, Steve McQueen’s latest writing and directing outing is a series of features for the BBC, two available at this years BFI London Film Festival. The first tells the infamous tale of the Mangrove 9, a group of black protesters who were accused of a series of riot related crimes after a march against the Metropolitan Police for years of racially motivated harassment.
McQueen has never shied away from difficult subjects in his films; Hunger (2008) and 12 Years A Slave (2013) demand a large amount of investment and attention but are worth the journey if the audience makes it through. With Mangrove he again hasn’t gone for the easy route, though tackling a period issue it feels relevant today, but unlike previous films there’s a certain ease to watching Mangrove. There’s a number of reasons why this is ‘easier’ to watch, not least is the characters we follow throughout, mostly the owner of the restaurant that gives the film it’s name – Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes).
From the opening shot the film is filled personality, a long take of Frank walking through the streets of Notting Hill immediately tells us the setting and time whilst giving us a lot about who he is – it’s all bright, happy and full of joy – many sequences throughout are like this. Dance parties on the street with steel drums and many smiling faces give us an insight into the community and set up Frank’s restaurant as the focal point of the neighbourhood, some of them maybe flawed (Frank himself regretting involvement in less than legitimate businesses) but they’re all human, just enjoying life.
For those who aren’t familiar with the true story the sequences of the police essentially raiding the Mangrove for no just reason will be quite shocking, and even those who know will still be enraged by the treatment. A stroke of brilliance by McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons was essentially splitting the film in two, just before the halfway mark is when the courtroom drama takes over. Because of this, there’s over an hour of Frank trying to reason with the police, filing complaints and trying to take the issue to his local MP, constantly hitting brick walls along the way. As this is happening, the young men from his community are stopped and arrested for ‘fitting the profile’ of multiple suspects.
Though the trial started the motions of change, one of the most effecting elements McQueen achieves is how contemporary the story feels.
Sam Spruell is the main antagonising element for Frank, playing Pc Frank Pulley, the deeply racist officer to blame for much of the unfair treatment against the Mangrove and it’s customers, and once the trial begins he doesn’t have any doubt in his opinions, Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) a stoic and tough authority not hiding his bias either. You’d be mistaken to think that, though the pacing slows the quality would dip alongside, but when it moves to a courtroom it does everything possible to keep you hooked.
It’s no secret what the outcome is, but the way in which the Mangrove 9 break it down to the point in which there is no doubt that the officers interviewed are lying and are willing to create a false narrative to frame the community for crimes they didn’t commit is incredibly engaging, this mixed with a few montages of prep and evidence over an excellent soundtrack means there isn’t a dip in the pacing at all.
Through all the elements highlighted so far, Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, the charismatic spokeswoman for the Black Panthers, has been amiss. Any sequence with Wright in she almost always steals the show, the only other member of the cast able to keep up is Parkes as Frank, together creating a masterclass in acting. McQueen uses his signature long takes perfectly to compliment the on screen talent, one moment in particular in which one of the accused is put inside a cell after an altercation with a court officer, the camera stays low essentially inside the door to the tiny cell room as they scream about the wicked and evil men that put them there – it’s heartbreaking, as it resonates so much with why the 9 are on trial, that they’re horribly mistreated and ignored when trying to criticise who put them there.
Though the trial started the motions of change, one of the most effecting elements McQueen achieves is how contemporary the story feels. There’s a sense that maybe the dialogue for the racist characters has been toned down from what was likely said to make it feel more modern, in turn showing that though things have changed somewhat, we still have a way to go, and that systematic racism hasn’t completely disappeared but is merely less vocal than it used to be.