Steve McQueen has always been reliable for his lean work; art that never wastes a frame, a beat or the deep well in an actor that only he could drop into and lift a pail of pathos from. Likely a combination of his background first as a painter then as a Turner prize winning short-film director. Regardless of its origins, McQueen is back at the top of his game producing taught, humanistic cinema in that most un-McQueen of places: television.
Mangrove, the first part of his BBC1 anthology Small Axe, a collection of pieces about Black and West Indian communities between the late 60’s and the mid-80’s, is the true story of the Mangrove Nine. A Civil Rights justice tale to rival any of those Stateside, McQueen drops us into an inch perfect recreation of late 1960’s Notting Hill and the Mangrove restaurant, the heart of a persecuted West Indian community. Owned by Frank Crichlow, searingly played by Shaun Parkes, he unwittingly becomes a community leader after his restaurant gets raided 12 times in little more than a year. The police reasoning amounting to nothing but racial profiling and racist motivation to remove a thriving institution from a people they despise. Organising a community protest against the police in response, Crichlow worked with young Trinidadian barrister Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). After the protest is aggressively kettled by the police, the 3 of them were arrested, alongside 6 others, and charged with the serious crime of riot and affray.
Despite a reduction in screen size nothing has been reduced by McQueen when it comes to the gravity of his subject matter, nor that of his style. An ostensibly political story much like his past work, he keeps the focus on the texture of the place and people on our screen. He cleverly eschews focus on the broadsheet and international focus and instead we are at home, in bed, in the cell with the Mangrove nine. Even when they are being stalked by members of the Metropolitan Police. The camera lingers on the shattered detritus of a kitchen after a thundering police raid. McQueen understands that the personal-as-political is never truer than in minority and disenfranchised communities, and his script gives these people time to breathe. There will not be many more as silently eloquent moments in television this year than Jones-LeCointe, after celebrating the joining of Black Panther and trade union interests, walking through a tucked away kitchen of South Asian wives washing up.
Wright and Kirby are fantastic as the young and politicised, their eloquence in defending themselves lending the court room drama extra weight as they cross examine the statements from the racist policemen. The whole cast, from aunts to local street kids, burst with life and humour and pain. An early form of the Notting Hill Carnival allows us to see this glorious community exist, at least for an evening, flourishing in their history and each other’s company. Parkes however, as the tortured Crichlow, burns at the heart of the cast and commands every scene he is in. The restauranteur dragged into a limelight he never asked for, battered from the fight he never wished to undertake. After so many raids from the police Parkes’ eyes scan every room just waiting for the next sign of trouble. A performance that even the director and his camera seem in awe of, often bathed in blinding light and at the centre of the frame. It would be a crime were he not a strong contender for every award going at the end of this strange year.
A triumphant first act then for Small Axe and McQueen on television. Two hours that seemed to fly by. It’s hard to cover everything from this masterwork in such a small space. Mica Levi once again producing a score rife with electronic tension, a plethora of fantastic reggae needle drops, the fantastic editing underlining the changing face of London and its place as the honourable tenth Mangrove defendant. A city, and a community, persecuted for being who they were by a system built on challenging and owning Black people. It is commendable for the BBC to be airing this, these are the national stories that we should be hearing about, told by a national treasure of a filmmaker. There might not be a higher compliment in today’s environment than that the next episode will not be caught up on but watched live with bated breath.
Mangrove is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.