Written by Steve McQueen & Alastair Siddons
Directed by Steve McQueen
The summer of 2020 was a season marked by the continued spread of COVID-19 and a massive civil unrest movement that came out of a reaction to the state-sanctioned murders of a growing number of Black people in America. What followed in major cities across the country were all-out police riots with hordes of uniformed officers revealing what brutal thugs they indeed were. The media narrative pushed was that there were riots, but in hundreds of videos released across social media, anyone could see that these attacks from police were made on peaceful demonstrators who were being very direct about their thought on law enforcement in America. Steve McQueen reminds us that this is not merely an American phenomenon or even something specific to our point in history. Police and the justice system are inherently racist, and they cannot be engaged in good faith.
The Mangrove Nine were a group of British Black activists charged with inciting a riot during a protest in 1970. Police in the Notting Hill area of London had been targeting The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant that had become a significant community focal point and gathering spot for black intellectuals. The Mangrove was owned by Frank Crichlow, who was engaged in a seemingly never-ending back and forth with the law. They accused his establishment of being a den of drugs & prostitution with no evidence ever presented that this was occurring. After the arrests, the Mangrove Nine’s trial put a lens on the racially motivated actions of the London Metropolitan Police and led to their acquittal. The floodgate opened on exposing the white supremacist rot within one of the oldest police institutions in the world.
While these were prominent activists in the real story, McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons focus on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), whom they reframe as less an activist himself and more a person who wants to run a restaurant for his community. Darcus Howe (Malachai Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LaCointe (Letitia Wright) provide more of a clear political perspective, but over time Crichlow learns to see how simply being Black in England is a political action. The story is composed of some pretty straightforward acts: establishing Crichlow and the other characters, building up the police raids’ intensity to the protest, and the court case.
I am not a fan of speech-driven courtroom films as I don’t like the overdramatization of real events. So often, these speech moments come across as Aaron Sorkin-esque liberal fantasies that the justice system actually does work and the bad people are just “a few bad apples.” Here, Darcus must outwit the police by looking at material facts and presenting that to the jury while cross-examining the film’s main antagonist, PC Pulley. Darcus doesn’t use his moment to cross-examine to philosophically pine about the human condition but instead to take apart Pulley’s testimony until his entire credibility is ruined.
The most fascinating character in the story for me is Frank Crichlow, and Parkes gives a fantastic performance helped by McQueen’s masterful direction. Crichlow is simmering with rage that reveals years of oppression at the police’s hands, Pulley in particular. We get some remarkable shots of the man clenching his jaw, eyes searing through his oppressors, just on edge. One scene has Crichlow tossed in a cell when the court officers decide to bully a couple of the defendants. McQueen shoots from a low angle medium-shot, letting the light through the window create a slight haze in the space. He also doesn’t cut from Parkes, allowing the actor to work through the scene, and it’s clear that this isn’t scripted. I was reminded a lot of some of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master.
Mangrove is a much better substitute for the dreadful Aaron Sorkin venture The Trial of the Chicago 7. While that film is a gross distortion of fact where undercover law enforcement is given a glossed-over veneer to “both sides” the argument, Mangrove is very clear that cops are bastards and that the system is still levied in favor of white dominance over Black justice. It’s likely Sorkin’s garbage fire will get awards nominations; it’s less certain that McQueen’s Mangrove will get recognized in the manner that it should.