London Film Festival 2020: MANGROVE

On April 20th, 1968, Enoch Powell stood in front of members of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham and gave an oration infamously known as the Rivers of Blood speech. In it, Powell strongly criticised mass immigration and discussed the bill that would introduce the Race Relations Act, widely derided at the time. It was a watershed moment in British politics, and not surprisingly, Powell himself is awarded a namecheck in Steve McQueen‘s latest effort – and the first of five films in his Small Axe series for the BBC – Mangrove. It is a powerful, and hopeful, look at the power of community, and the need to stand up for what is right.

London Film Festival 2020: MANGROVE
source: BBC

Those who are aware of McQueen‘s work, chief among them 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, will recognise the director’s strong focus on aesthetic, although his regular cinematographer has been replaced here by Shabier Kirchner. McQueen continues his passionate insight into the lives of black men and woman held down by race, although this time he turns his gaze to his native country. The production design is exquisite, creating a vast expanse of west London undergoing a change in the late 60s. The acting absolutely superb. McQueen has crafted a beautiful, shattering testament to the power of community amid the horrors of tense racial relations.

Notting Hill

In the late 60s, Frank Crichlow (played to quiet perfection by Shaun Parkes) established a restaurant in Notting Hill he called Mangrove. It delivered authentic West Indian food and quickly became a hub of the Notting Hill community. Crichlow wanted to distance himself from the illegal dealings of previous establishments by creating something wholesome and happy.

Parkes presents Crichlow as many things; the buoyant man-about-town, merrily chatting with customers; the political-adjacent, happy to provide quarters for the Black Panthers, but stopping short of active involvement; and finally the furious, righteous man beaten down by the system and ready to fight back. These opening scenes are delightful, showing a myriad of characters populating the famous restaurant. It highlights just how important the Mangrove was to the community around it, and why the police force, led by the vicious PC Frank Pulley (a snarling, menacing Sam Spruell) decided it had to go.

The Mangrove was the subject of many raids, undertaken by bitter police officers who blithely tell their victims to go back to their own country if they didn’t like it. This was nothing unusual. The police are seen to encourage random racism in an attempt to make Britain inhospitable to anyone who isn’t white. One scene sees a group of officers playing cards. One draws the ace of spades and is told the penalty for drawing said card is to go out and arrest the first black man he sees. “What for?” he questions. Whatever he fancies, is the direction of his superior officers.

London Film Festival 2020: MANGROVE
source: BBC

It’s shocking, and the callous brutality handed out by these police officers only amps up the muscular approach McQueen takes for Mangrove. Scenes are doused in tension, feeling like a simmering pot waiting to boil over. Kirchner’s camera rushes in to be part of the action, caught in the thick of the anger and violence. It’s at once exhilarating and maddening. Crichlow, deciding he has had enough of police interference, organises a protest and takes to the streets. This is undoubtedly the biggest set-piece of the movie, with dozens of extras storming the streets, crying out powerful chants of “Hands off black people” and “Let’s get rid of the pigs”. One demonstrator went as far as to procure a pig’s head for the procession, the anger with the police force seething from the crowd. The ensuing altercation leads to nine arrests, bringing about the famous Mangrove Nine, who took it to court to clear their names when accused of inciting a riot.

The Community

Though posited as a courtroom drama, the courtroom scenes themselves don’t take place until halfway through the movie. We’re given plenty of time to consider the racial tension of McQueen‘s Notting Hill setting, and the implication of it on the lives of its citizens. Altheia Jones (an excellent Letitia Wright) leads the Black Panthers from the Mangrove’s backroom; Darcus (Malaci Kirby) is young and impassioned, reading books by prominent black authors and empowering himself; Barbara (Rochenda Sandall), Darcus’ partner, is mixed race and all fury; even the young black men who frequent the Mangrove learn not to take their drugs or paraphernalia with them, given the chances of a raid at any moment.

It is these people who make up the spine of Mangrove, the nucleus of immigrants who just want to get on with their lives, but can’t. The time we’re given to get to know them is well spent; we come to understand them, to bear witness to the constant police harassment they suffer from. It means we are invested in them come the final third when the courtroom proceedings get underway.

London Film Festival 2020: MANGROVE
source: BBC

The courtroom scenes themselves are slower and more methodical than what has come previously. The infuriating red tape shows how stacked the deck was against the nine, as simple requests such as more black people on the jury are denied for menial reasons. McQueen lets these scenes breathe, and the result is perhaps even tenser than the action scenes. Even a static camera watching the nine in the dock as they wait for their results is almost unbearable. The supporting cast here (Jack Lowdon as the nine’s lawyer, Ian McDonald, and Alex Jennings as the cantankerous Judge Clarke stand out) are excellent with their parts.


Mangrove is not just a film. It feels more like a seething indictment on a shameful piece of British history, a call to arms for justice, and a showcase for the incredible talents of both McQueen and his stellar cast. It is both infuriating and uplifting, enlightening and horrifying. It should – and perhaps will – be the beginning of a younger generation’s education into the historical misdeeds of the United Kingdom, and if this is how good his opening act is, one can’t help but wonder how the next four films in the Small Axe series will be.

Mangrove is the first of five movies under the Small Axe banner of films Steve McQueen has made. Which are you looking forward to the most? Let us know in the comments below!

Mangrove will be released on Amazon in the US on November 20th, 2020. For more information about release dates, please click here.

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