Steve McQueen’s anthology film series Small Axe was my most anticipated project of the winter season for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, anything made by Steve McQueen is compulsory viewing for me, as I have been a huge fan of his work for just over a decade since the release of his critically-acclaimed film Hunger (2008). His filmography could be considered an encapsulation of quality over quantity, as although it is not as extensive as other contemporary filmmakers’, each effort has been a showcase for McQueen’s wonderful craftsmanship, absorbing thematic material, and breakout performances from numerous actors (Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows (2018) to name a few).
Secondly, the concept of this series and the manner in which it is being distributed is quite unique in the context of modern cinema. Small Axe is comprised of five feature films, all helmed by McQueen and based on real events. While the stories in each entry are distinct from one another, they all share the same conceit: exploring the lives of Black British people from the late 1960’s to the mid-1980’s. Anthology series may be common in the television industry, but when it comes to film they are much rarer, with the most notable example arguably being Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Furthermore, they are all airing on BBC One at the prime time slot of 9pm on Sunday, while being made available to US audiences through Amazon Prime. Hence, the level of ambition being displayed by McQueen should pique the attention of any cinephile.
Finally, the social and political context which pervades its release only exacerbates the importance of this series. In a year which has seen racial tensions and subsequent violence manifest in tragic ways and renewed initiatives worldwide to highlight the systemic racism which plagues society, an artist of McQueen’s calibre illuminating the struggles faced by Black people (specifically members of West Indian communities in London) in such a manner makes an already compelling production more felicitous. The first film in the series, Mangrove, aired last Sunday night in the UK and Ireland, and if the other entries manage to maintain the level of quality exhibited by this one, viewers are in for a very special piece of work.
The setting of Mangrove is Notting Hill in 1969, and the title is inspired by the name of a restaurant in the area which served as a pivotal centre of recreation, food, music, and the exchange of revolutionary ideas. The restaurant’s owner, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), is keen to emphasise that his business is not a façade for illegitimate practices, simply serving the purpose of allowing members of the community to embrace their culture and enjoy each other’s company. The London police force, however, do not see it that way. Headed by constable Pulley (Sam Spruell), officers frequently raid the restaurant with the aim of locating drugs or identifying any sort of criminal activity. After consistent instances of police harassment, Crichlow is encouraged to organise a peaceful demonstration alongside the Black British Panthers to vocalise their dissatisfaction with the treatment they have received from the police force. Subsequently, the conflict between the two parties escalates into violence, and eventually a trial which proved to be seminal in regards to the British court system and racial injustice.
McQueen does a terrific job in the early stages of Mangrove of establishing the significance of the titular restaurant for the West Indian community in London, immersing viewers in the time period and the narrative’s key figures. He peppers the first thirty minutes with extended sequences which, despite being light on plot, are fundamental in displaying the quotidian activity in Crichlow’s business, from the cooking of the spicy cuisines served to customers to the sound of steel drums which accentuate spontaneous and joyous outbreaks of dance outside the restaurant. The dynamics shared between Frank, his co-workers, and the guests are incredibly endearing and earnest, which only renders the interruptions of the police force more perturbing. Frank himself makes for an engrossing protagonist; he is quite reluctant to engage in any activity which may elicit aggressive responses from the authorities, and his resolve is tested on many occasions as he is forced to consider the prospects of the closure of his business and jail time. Crichlow however, marvellously played by Parkes, never loses sight of the extreme challenges faced by his fellow immigrants, and carries the responsibility of becoming a figurehead among his community.
The sterling work done by McQueen, the cast, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and other members of the production team in the film’s first half are crucial in rendering the second hour a pulsating experience for viewers, which revolves around the trial resulting from the events of the protest. There are fewer courtroom dramas released nowadays compared to the 1990’s, for example, and admittedly it is a genre of film that is difficult to tackle without descending into hackneyed plot developments or the tone becoming over-sentimental. There are not many filmmakers I would trust to deliver a gripping courtroom drama free of these weaknesses, but Steve McQueen is one of them, and he has just done so. From the moment the activists on trial, labelled the ‘Mangrove Nine’, enter the criminal court building known as the Old Bailey, the piece boasts an intensity rivalled by very few pieces of cinema I have seen this year. The racial discrimination which pervaded the British judicial system at this time is highlighted frequently, notably through the rejected requests of the defendants for an all-black jury, and the forbidden entry of certain activists’ relatives into the courtroom despite obtaining tickets and available space.
What elevates McQueen’s take on the genre above similar efforts is that it remains true to the characters detailed in the first hour. Attempts at sabotage, heated exchanges between lawyers, witnesses, and judges, and surprising revelations during testimonies are all genre tropes on display in Mangrove, but they are interspersed with moments in which various figures struggle to come to terms with the prejudice being exhibited by authoritarian figures, envisaging the possibility of a life in prison and, in some cases, leaving their children behind. Individuals who, in the wrong hands, could have come across as caricatures, such as Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), are instead written and performed in a way which feels disturbingly convincing. The fact that two of the accused, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), decided to defend themselves during the trial renders the sequences of them cross-examining the police officers and prosecution witnesses incredibly stirring, as they must rein in their frustration at the treatment they personally endured from these figures while simultaneously exposing the extent of the brutality and corruption perpetrated by the force to the jury. Kirby and Wright both convey the complexity of these emotions superbly, with the latter in particular further reinforcing why she is one of the most exciting young acting talents working today.
What resonates so deeply in Mangrove is the juxtaposition of the seemingly hopeless case the activists are fighting with the collective spirit evinced by them in spite of the overriding dread of conviction. There is a moment towards the end of the film when one defence lawyer suggests to Frank that they should plead guilty, a remark which initially strikes a chord with the restaurant’s owner but is met with outrage from Jones-LeCointe and others. She expresses the importance of creating a legacy of resistance and communal unity for their children to carry forward, even if the outcome of their immediate situation is unfavourable. Their strategy in court was unique in the context of British Black Power trials in this era, even if the majority of it was met with disapproval from Judge Clarke. They strive to ensure that the case is evaluated on the grounds of race. Ultimately, their actions before and during the trial reverberate given the current socio-political climate, demonstrating the importance of remain loyal to one’s principles and community in spite of the systemic flaws which often inhibit legal institutions from exacting justice.
We should be grateful that a vital story like this was adapted for the screen, but we are very fortunate that it happened to be Steve McQueen who did so. Managing to succeed as a nuanced depiction of Black British activism, a poignant reflection of West Indian culture, and a riveting courtroom drama, Mangrove exemplifies McQueen’s skill at vividly capturing real-life events on film.
And there are four films in this series yet to air. Pinch me.
Mangrove is available to stream on the BBC iPlayer now, and will be released on Amazon Prime in the USA on Friday November 20th.
The Small Axe series will continue to air on Sunday nights at 9pm on BBC One over the next four weeks.