Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes and Malachi Kirby star in Steve McQueen’s vital retelling of a landmark 1970 trial that exposed the unrelenting police harassment of London’s West Indian community.
Steve McQueen’s ravishing Lovers Rock summons a potent sense of a community gathering that caresses and cocoons those present, shutting out the hostilities of the city outside. The second movie to premiere at the New York Film Festival from the director’s Small Axe anthology for Amazon and BBC, Mangrove, which is set a decade earlier, in 1968-70, shows how another regular gathering place for the same immigrant community in London provides a cherished home away from home. The difference here is that its very existence represents a threatening statement of resistance to the white establishment.
“The thing about the Black man is he’s gotta know his place,” says police constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) as he eyes the opening-night celebrations of the Mangrove, a cozy West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill owned by Trinidadian-born Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes). “If he oversteps, he’s gotta be nudged back in.” Simply placing a “Black Ownership” sign in the window is a provocation to the virulently racist cop, who views it as grounds to lead a series of violent raids on the licensed establishment, falsifying reports of drugs, gambling and prostitution.
It’s an interesting quirk of timing that this searing account of that ignominious historical episode, co-written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen, premieres the same week as Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Both films are courtroom procedurals at their core, and both are about right-wing demonization of protest demonstrations in which chaos was the result of excessive police force, a pattern familiar from this year’s news.
More specifically, McQueen’s anthology of five original films set around London’s West Indian community between the late 1960s and the mid-’80s is about Black resilience, its title coming from the proverb immortalized in a Bob Marley lyric: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” The films will be rolled out by Amazon on Fridays over five weeks, starting Nov. 20 with Mangrove.
The words of Trinidadian socialist historian C.L.R. James are heard over the masterful opening sequence, describing transplanted islanders like those of the story: “These are new men, new types of human beings … These men have perspective. Know particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.” Frank Crichlow is one such man, even if he tries to resist becoming an activist, insisting that his sole ambition is to run a good restaurant serving spicy West Indian cuisine.
In the gorgeous tracking shot that introduces him, Frank saunters through pre-gentrification Notting Hill as DP Shabier Kirchner’s camera pulls back into a wide drone shot to reveal Greater London beyond, a densifying metropolis littered with widespread construction sites. That motif recurs throughout, suggesting a fast-growing city in which the foothold of immigrant communities is an affront to white racists who feel their ownership being challenged.
The script focuses on three principal figures from what became known, through the controversial trial, as the Mangrove Nine — Frank, British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).
Frank is vigilant about keeping his restaurant respectable, but Pulley and his cronies continue their raids, assaulting diners and staff, shouting racial slurs and causing considerable damage each time. In one expressive shot, McQueen holds steady for a daringly long time on an aluminum colander rolling on the floor of the wrecked kitchen. His repeat calls to police, council representatives and the Home Office to lodge complaints about the constant unmotivated harassment yield no response. With his customers scared away, Frank is on the verge of giving up. But a Mangrove regular comes by with a biscuit tin full of donations from locals who urge him to fight for the Black community hub.
That vital role in providing camaraderie and connection is illustrated in some joyously loose, captivating scenes, from Frank bantering in the Mangrove with his old buddy Dol Isaacs (Gary Beadle) and the irrepressible Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) to a celebration with kettle drummers and dancers that spills out into the street.
Frank’s determination to stay out of politics and activism dissolves once the maddening reality of his situation leaves him no choice. Darcus advocates “self-movement” rather than waiting in vain for help from white authorities, while Altheia stresses the importance of protecting Black businesses: “We need to defend ourselves against power before the stream of blood winds its way to our door.”
They band together with others including British-born Barbara Beese (Rocheda Sandall), Darcus’ partner at the time, to organize a peaceful demonstration on Aug. 9, 1970. The 150 marchers are outnumbered two-to-one by police. Kirchner’s camera muscles in close, to visceral effect, among the protesters chanting “Hands off the Mangrove” and the cops crowding in on them, sparking inevitable physical clashes.
The film’s second hour shifts predominantly to the courtroom as the nine demonstrators wrongfully arrested stand accused on Riot and Affray charges, the latter a fussy British catch-all for public disturbances. With lower court magistrates already having dismissed the case, the Mangrove Nine find themselves in the dock of the Old Bailey, the highest court in the land, normally reserved for the harshest crimes.
Two significant new characters are introduced at this point: Defense lawyer Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden), who would become a key figure in British anti-discrimination laws; and Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), described by Ian as “an old cantankerous upper-class bully.” The always superb Jennings plays that posh pitilessness to the frosty hilt, calling the 11-week trial “an unusually wearisome case” with a disdainful roll of his eyes. But neither the actor nor McQueen allow the judge to become a caricature, which adds to the impact of his momentous closing statement.
The scene-setting and the vibrant sense of time and place make for an absorbing watch, with indispensable contributions from production designer Helen Scott and costumer Lisa Duncan, their work captured by Kirchner in grainy textures that evoke the era. But the drama really sparks into high gear once the trial gets underway, a shift signaled by arresting cathedral-like shots of the Old Bailey’s Neo-Baroque domed ceiling accompanied by the dissonant strings of Mica Levi’s sparingly used score. The transition also gives the excellent principal cast ample opportunities both for impassioned oratory and amusing disruption.
Ian welcomes the suggestion first of Darcus and then Altheia that they represent themselves on the stand, correctly predicting that this will ruffle the fusty judge’s feathers. The defendants’ strategy is to wind up Clarke by refusing to let the case be about the false pretext of violence and instead make it about race.
There are thrilling moments when Altheia discredits a doctor testifying about bite marks she supposedly left on a cop, while Darcus brings his legal training and methodical research to an expert dismantling of PC Pulley’s credibility. In an outburst that gets hearty approval from the mostly Black spectators in the gallery, one of the defendants, Rhoden Gordon (Nathaniel Martello-White), says of the dirty cop: “I have known that man for 10 years and no bigger bully, no greater thug, no greater gangster planted his big foot in Notting Hill in all that time.”
Wright and Kirby get most of the meaty speeches and they tackle them with the majestic pride of self-possessed people who refuse to be intimidated by three and a half centuries of colonial oppression. Sandall also makes the feisty Barbara, pregnant with Darcus’ child, an invigorating presence, softening in a lovely moment of female solidarity with Altheia.
But the film’s quiet dramatic center remains Parkes’ enormously affecting Frank, his face a mask of pain and incredulity each time he’s mistreated by a court officer or hears words like “savages” sprinkled casually into the remarks of the Crown prosecutors. Without making him a saint, the script depicts Frank as a religious man struggling to comprehend the depths of the hatred unleashed on him and his community, a force that causes him repeatedly to reach for the word “wicked,” in its most literal meaning. The image of Parkes standing silent, his haunted eyes welling with tears as the verdicts are read, is shattering.
At a time when the focus has intensified on racial discrimination in metropolitan police forces, McQueen gives a gripping, powerful account of a chapter in British history that will be unfamiliar but no less urgent to the majority of American audiences. Anyone who believes in equality will share the tightening knot of indignation deep in the pit of Frank’s stomach.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate)
Production companies: BBC Film, Turbine Studios, Lammas Park, in association with Amazon Studios, Emu Films
Cast: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rocheda Sandall, Alex Jennings, Jack Lowden, Sam Spruell, Gershwyn Eusrache Jr., Gary Beadle, Llewella Gideon, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell, Jumayn Hunter
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
Producers: Michael Elliott, Anita Overland
Executive producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Lisa Duncan
Music: Mica Levi
Editors: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen
Casting: Gary Davy