Vivid, immediate and impassioned, this new movie episode in Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s five-part film series for the BBC, is about the Mangrove Nine case in 1970. A group of black British campaigners were tried on charges including incitement to riot after demonstrating against police harassment of the Mangrove in London’s Notting Hill, a restaurant that had become a meeting point for activists.
After not-guilty verdicts were returned in most cases, the peppery trial judge, Edward Clarke (played here by Alex Jennings), clearly irritated by the transparently untruthful police testimony as much as by the defendants’ rebellious behaviour in court, remarked that there had been “racial hatred on both sides”. He naturally intended that as a rebuke to the leftists, a moral equivalence whose purpose was to annul the whole question of official racism (not a million miles, perhaps, from Donald Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment). But it was a spectacular and unprecedented judicial admission that there was, in fact, racial prejudice in the Metropolitan police, and the case made history.
Production designer Helen Scott and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner help create the west London of the late 60s and early 70s, with the eerily vast Westway just in the process of being built. Shaun Parkes gives a wonderful performance as Frank Crichlow, proprietor of the Mangrove, keen to make a new start after earlier involvement in the dodgy club scene, sometimes cheerily buoyant and even euphoric at the success of the place, sometimes angry and depressed, a man who likes a drink and a wager and often on the brink of losing everything. He is content to be a radical by association with his customers; his establishment has a picture of Paul Bogle on the wall, the Jamaican anti-colonialist rebel leader. Llewella Gideon is tremendous as his formidable Aunt Betty, the restaurant’s cook, with whom Frank is perpetually squabbling.
Malachi Kirby is fiercely composed as the activist Darcus Howe, and wonderfully conveys his mercurial hauteur and plaintively poetic side. Rochenda Sandall is Barbara Beese, a British Black Panther leader who was Howe’s partner, and Letitia Wright is her charismatic comrade, trade union organiser Atheia Jones-LeCointe. Jack Lowden plays the radical barrister Ian MacDonald, and Sam Spruell has the thankless role of the bigoted copper PC Frank Pulley. It’s an incidental pleasure to see the veteran TV performer Derek Griffiths, who brings charm to the cameo role of the legendary author CLR James, Howe’s uncle.
This movie happens to be emerging at the same time as Aaron Sorkin’s comparable US historical drama for Netflix, The Trial of the Chicago 7, about a case happening at around the same era, 1968, concerning anti-Vietnam war demonstrators accused of instigating violence. But where Sorkin’s film is frankly supercilious, verbose and naive, quaintly imagining a prosecutor with sweetly liberal scruples, Mangrove is clear-sighted and genuinely passionate with performances which are straight from the heart. You are plunged right back into a situation where really dangerous issues are really at stake, and where at any time Crichlow might be tempted to sell out his co-defendants by taking a guilty plea.
To watch the scene where they have nothing to do but wait for the verdict in an enclosed room, in a fog of cigarette smoke and cold tea, is to be returned to the toughness and drear of British officialdom and the law. And there is something jarring about the sight of old-fashioned police uniforms whose wearers keep crashing unexpectedly through the door when the Mangrove clientele are minding their own business, like a very brutal Monty Python sketch. But the film is also candid on the subject of some of the ugly demo provocations, like parading a pig’s head.
As with McQueen’s previously premiered Small Axe film, Lovers Rock, there is real fervour and real meaning here: it is film-making with visceral commitment and muscular storytelling.
•Mangrove will screen on 7 October at the London film festival, and then on BBC1 in November.