A story of protagonists,
Mangrove, EMU Films (2020)
Bristol's Black Live's Matter Protest, June 2020
The idea of experiencing through a screen may seem foreign for some, but not for film audiences. We’ve been doing it for decades - looking down the barrel of Jimmy Conway’s gun, running through hotel corridors from Jack Torrance, hitching a ride with Thelma and Louise… So walking down to the Watershed on the first night of the London Film Festival, although the idea of not being allowed to eat popcorn was disturbing, felt familiar.
Mangrove, Steve McQueen’s latest film and the first episode in the anthology series Small Axe, follows the story of the Mangrove 9, a group of nine black men and women accused of riot and affray after fights broke out at an organised demonstration against police brutality in Notting Hill. Set against the backdrop of late 1960s/early 1970s London, the film explores the importance of community post-Windrush, represented through the Mangrove restaurant run by Frank Crichlow.
Told through a rich palette (warm oranges and deep greens) and the rhythms of steel pans, McQueen delivers a careful and considered recounting of what happened at the Old Bailey over 55 days in 1970. The now much-forgotten story speaks for itself - the accusations of these nine men and women were racially charged, and the portrayal of the story makes this fact indisputable.
The performances from actors Letitia Wright (Altheia Jones-LeCointe) and Malachi Kirby (Darcus Howe) particularly lent themselves to the camerawork. Through their thick Caribbean accents their lines were slow and articulated, almost presented as proof against their accusations of anger and violence. The camera moved through the plot in a similar way, taking its time to linger on details in the shot, often severing the link between audio and visual. McQueen’s fearless decision to keep the camera rolling on a colander, knocked over after one of the many raids the police maliciously conducted on the Mangrove restaurant, for what felt like an eternity, is just one example.
Films which focus on social justice are historically fast in tempo. Steve McQueen’s presentation of racial violence and police harassment diverges from the unwritten rule and allows its white audience to notice the injustices that are by no means small, but remain hidden in the eyes of privilege. (I think it is worth mentioning, at this point in the article, I am a white woman and am guilty of this oversight.)
Over the course of lockdown, an injustice so large it dominated our social media, our news outlets, our conversations, took place on May 15th in Minneapolis, U.S.A: George Floyd’s murder. It sparked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mainstream, causing a tidal wave of protests across the globe including in my hometown, London. As I watched the chaos of the protest in 1969 in Screen 3 of the Watershed, I felt the same surge of energy as I did in the (socially-distanced) midst of the black, brown and white crowds: I felt angry.
I was asking myself, ‘How could this be allowed to happen now?’. Barbara Beese, Frank Crichlow, Godfrey Millett, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Rhodan Gordon, Rupert Boyce, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish and Darcus Howe were asking themselves the same question in 1969 with one adjustment, ‘How could this be allowed to happen ever?’.
In a pre-screening interview, Steve McQueen was asked how it feels for Mangrove to be released now, at such a pivotal moment in our history of racial violence. He told the interviewer that he hadn’t thought of it in that way. “These unfortunate events have been going on for a long time … Mangrove is a film starting in 1968, we’re in 2020 and it could’ve been like yesterday.” What we (we being a society that favours whiteness) should be opening our eyes to is a reality where police brutality is not something that died with the Reagan administration and definitely not something that only exists across the pond.
Mangrove is an essential film in our education to continue to fight in the centuries-long battle for racial equity. One only has to listen to Letitia Wright declaring “We mustn’t be victims but protagonists in our own stories” to feel the winds of change and chaos start to stir.