“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.”C.L.R. James
The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is an emotionally powerful courtroom drama chronicling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, falsely charged with riot and affray following a protest. That this powerful indictment of systemic racial injustice should be released in the same year as the Black Lives Matter protests could not be more fitting. A joyous opening celebrates the Mangrove restaurant’s opening, but also Notting Hill’s multiculturalism at large. However, it is swiftly overtaken by brutal police raids, one simple yet haunting shot lingering for a half minute on a spinning colander, forcing the viewer to take in the destruction and pain that lingers long after the police depart. As a whole, the film hits the expected beats for its subject matter but is elevated by its thoughtful artistry. Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright provide the film’s emotional core as allies but ideoligical adversaries within the black community. Whilst the sneering PC Pulley is an easy caricature, a more telling scene shows his impassive reaction to a black mother’s grief at her finding that her child has been beaten in custody: the man truly believes he is restoring a natural order that is challenged by the black community’s self-sufficiency. The courtroom itself is a microcosm of the wider world, unwilling to acknowledge racial injustice until it is no longer avoidable. When Frank Crichlow is thrown into a jail cell, the camera gazes up at him as he screams in frustration, the image uncomfortably overexposed with blown out highlights mirroring the bursting emotion he can no longer contain. Similarly, the camera remains fixed on Frank’s face as each of the verdicts is announced, rather than passing from one defendant to the next; tracking the continuing range of emotion he experiences after a long-fought battle is far more powerful. And yet, as we are reminded shortly afterward, this was a single battle for justice in an ongoing war.