Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe: Mangrove’ Is a Searing Story of Racial Injustice in 1970s London

Among the many aspects that can be found in racist actions, one of the most disturbing for its shallow simplicity is how they can arise out of purely absurd situations, like the threat posed by a restaurant. “Mangrove” is the first film in a series director Steve McQueen is releasing on Amazon titled “Small Axe,” which will feature five films, released on a weekly basis, telling stories set within London’s East Indian community.  “Mangrove” opens the series with the feel of a director very passionate about the material. McQueen was raised by a mother from Trinidad and father from Grenada, and so one senses how intimately he understands the world of this film. Its timeless relevance is in how its complex portrayal of racism applies to so much recent history and no doubt, more history yet to come.

McQueen dramatizes a true story that took place in 1970. In Notting Hill, a Caribbean immigrant from Trinidad named Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opens a restaurant named the Mangrove, which specializes in spicy food. Crichlow should have been allowed to operate like any regular entrepreneur but in 1970s London radical politics were also in the air. The Mangrove becomes a hangout for Black Panther activists like Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) who publish pamphlets or speak to workers about union power. Crichlow sympathizes with the cause but he’s no political rabble rouser. But the Mangrove becomes a target for local racist cops, especially Pc Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), who carries out raids on the restaurant under ridiculous charges. His language though, exposes Pulley as a rabid racist who sees the Black Caribbean community as an affront to English culture. Tired of the harassment, Crichlow is convinced by Jones and Howe to participate in a protest march. A confrontation with the police results in nine people, including Crichlow, Jones and Howe being arrested and accused of inciting a riot. The “Mangrove Nine” will have to take their case and the racist society they inhabit to court.

With “Mangrove” McQueen takes the events that transpired in Notting Hill to deliver a searing, microcosmic version of conflicts that are still ongoing. Since his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen has proven he is a gifted stylist who can transform any genre to his particular vision and depth. “Small Axe” is his first major work since 2018’s “Widows,” a vastly underrated heist movie that is more about personalities than crime. “Mangrove” succeeds miles beyond just being a courtroom thriller. It’s a blistering study of how racism operates and creates a claustrophobic, nightmarish environment for its victims. Crichlow is like a hero out of a Kafka or Victor Hugo story, trapped by unjust forces out of his control. He just wants to run his business and some patrons happen to be part of the young, socially conscious movements of the era. When Howe tries to explain what’s going on in Notting Hill with Marxist terminology, it completely goes over Crichlow’s head. What doesn’t need overly intellectual explaining is Pulley’s violent prejudice. During one of many unjustifiable raids on the Mangrove, he snickers at Crichlow about the West Indian community coming into the area with their strange foods and bright clothes. He is a white Englishman terrified of change, to the point where even a capitalist businessman like Crichlow is a threat.

Because McQueen is a filmmaker who excels at studying personalities, remember his haunting sex addiction drama “Shame,” once “Mangrove” enters the courts it expands on what makes everyone tick, whether it be the activists or the racists. The Mangrove Nine are taken to trial at the Old Bailey, which is a court usually reserved for virtual enemies of the state. In essence the authorities are telling these immigrants they have no place in England unless they shut up and take white abuse. With overpowering intellect Howe and another activist, Jones-Lecointe (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) represent themselves and strip down just how corrupt the police are. In the courthouse McQueen analyzes racist personalities with a finer eye. When Pulley is forced to defend his actions (and views) before a jury, we see just how pathetic these raging racists become without the power of force. Psychologically it’s also a keen moment that understands the mixture of insecurity and ignorance that breeds such a character. 

Every performance strikes a note of human authenticity in this film. Letitia Wright embodies the militant attitudes of the period but also the tension of then truly facing the powers that be up front. Shaun Parkes pulls off the hardest role however, because he is playing the non-hero hero. Everyone else in this circle of defendants is connected to the politics of the decade. They worship authors like CLR James and read “The Black Jacobins” (then again, everyone should read that book), but Crichlow would be happy just running his business. Parkes evokes the stress so well of a man entrapped and fighting. You could cut the tension with a knife when lawyers suggest he could go free if he just turns on the others, since they were all radicals meeting at his establishment. Parkes powerfully captures the real, general victims of racism, meaning everybody. 

“Mangrove” is both strikingly relevant in this year when Black Lives Matter shook the world, but it is also timeless. This story took place 50 years ago, and while societies have made much progress, there is still too much work to do. As a work of film McQueen, with his pristine compositions, also contributes wonderfully to a growing diversity in the kinds of stories being told. The other films in the “Small Axe” series will continue exploring the West Indian community through subjects like music (“Lovers Rock”) and battling racism within the police itself (“Red, White and Blue”). “Mangrove” is a perfect opening because it is a drama about the experiences of a specific community while at the same time casting a potent spell, reminding us that we have been fighting against this year has been a sad, familiar reality for a long time.

Small Axe: Mangrove” begins streaming Nov. 20 with new films in the series premiering every Friday on Amazon Prime Video.