Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen, BBC1, 15 November 20200
This is the first in an occasional series of television reviews. No spoiler alert – this television film is about historical events. Yet, perhaps, best if you watch it here before watching or reading this review.
Today, we discuss Small Axe – Mangrove, which was on BBC1, Sunday 15 November, directed by Steve McQueen, not a great album by Prefab Sprout, not a great Hollywood actor, but Sir Stephen Rodney McQueen, CBE, a British filmmaker and video artist, born in Hanwell, West London, 1969.
Mangrove is about the events of 1969 to 1971 when Frank Crichlow opened a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill as a community meeting place, but faced three incidences of police harassment and attacks on the Mangrove. The film presents the eventual, Black Power-inspired community counter-attack, which takes the form of an angry but peaceful demonstration which is disrupted and attacked by the police. The “Mangrove 9”, who included Crichlow and many others, end up on trial, in the Old Bailey, which tended to be used for the most heinous legal cases like treason.
McQueen and Alasdair Siddon’s script is careful, incisive and intelligent, not portraying a uniform group, but an often fractious and complex Notting Hill community, assailed by the mostly hostile Metropolitan Police force. Yet a peaceful and joyous community it is, as in the scenes with the Trinidadian steel band playing and the customers dancing, or with members of the community simply getting together and talking in what they see as a welcoming, safe space. All of this is facilitated by the devoutly religious, hard-working owner Frank Crichlow, brilliantly brought to world-weary life by Shaun Parkes.
Mangrove emphasises the importance in life of telling the truth and making a stand when you see something wrong happening. Related is the need for leader figures within the Black British community which is rooted deep within that community’s own experiences – we see this in the roles 2 of the Mangrove 9 take – Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) – who defend themselves and their fellow defendants in court.
For me, the crucial line is when Rhodan claims naively that he can represent himself in court like Darcus and Altheia, telling Frank that “It’s every man for him own self.” To which Frank wisely replies: “Eh! It’s dem and we…” Which ends the scene and emphasises the need for preparation and skill, which Darcus and Altheia have in abundance, and how callow individualism would reduce the strength of the community’s collective voice.
The tone includes humour – there is considerable situational irony in the scene when Judge Clarke tells Darcus off for wearing a beanie-style hat when he himself and all other legal officials are wearing their grey wigs. It is also deeply incisive about wider social ills when PC Pulley gives his dishonest testimony in court about how the Mangrove restaurant was “a haunt of criminals, prostitutes, ponces and the like…” which Darcus Howe later claims is “a myth that has been created about us”, the West Indian community in Notting Hill. A myth which has unfortunately persisted, still resonating in what gets said and printed in our media.
I would link Mangrove with certain recent BBC1 drama series that also depict institutional biases and blind spots of the British legal system with entertaining and illuminating courtroom scenes: Russell T. Davies’s A Very English Scandal (2018) and Amanda Coe’s The Trial of Christine Keeler (2019). These variously dramatized ingrained biases towards straight men and imbalances in power according to social class. Mangrove depicts the British legal system reluctantly being forced to come to terms with racial biases and the truth does out, in this case. Magna Carta, she did not die in vain! Traditional English trial by jury works here the truth is told with sufficient eloquence by Howe and Jones-LeCointe who are juxtaposed with PC Pulley’s arrant, errant lies.
Yet, any “feel good” triumphalist tone is rightly undercut and dissipated at the film’s end: a battle has been won, yes, Britain does make a notable step towards becoming a more inclusive place, but, as the factual on-screen captions inform us, the London Metropolitan police harassment of the Mangrove and its founder Frank Crichlow continued until 18 years later, in 1989… I sense we will get the jubilant, upbeat story with film #2, Lovers Rock, but before that, McQueen here delivers a necessary historical reality check.
Rachel Cooke, television critic of the New Statesman, welcomed this kind of story being told on British television, but added what I feel is an absurd caveat to her evaluation. She expresses reservations about there being too many lengthy speeches. Yes, apparently, a dramatization of one of the most significant trials ever held in this country, at the Old Bailey, needed long speeches cutting down! Surely, a drama of history and ideas and conflict like Mangrove needs this discursive element: it is great to see lots of stimulating and passionate talk on television. While I am certainly not saying that all TV drama needs complex, lengthy speeches, I do feel a bit of the old Trevor Griffiths approach of writing passionate, uncompromising talk is something we need as part of TV drama.
And the actors brilliantly perform these speeches, and other briefer exchanges. Jack Lowden is wonderfully chastened and responsive, adding the lawyer Ian MacDonald to his repertoire of historical British figures: Thomas Wyatt, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Tony Benn and, perhaps, post-Covid, Siegfried Sassoon… Rochenda Sandall, who I remember seeing in the most recent Line of Duty series, is combative, open, humane but tough. I was talking there about Trevor Griffiths, well what about Derek Griffiths here, wonderfully cast as the Marxist historian, C.L.R. James, long after Play Away, Play School and Play for Today but fully channelling their spirit. Sam Spruell as PC Pulley plays the part with venal deceit, conveying this Constable’s ingrained, unearned sense of racial superiority and casual corruption. This is a fine performance from Spruell in a very difficult role… We still have to come to terms with the history of people like Pulley and their presence today.
Ultimately, this first Small Axe film, Mangrove is a tremendous, carefully calibrated and emotionally and intellectually powerful drama based on real events in 1970: worthy of the name of a 2020 Play for Today. Anyone remotely interested in British history, law or politics, or indeed film or TV drama, should watch it. Really anyone, globally, should try and tune in and watch this on BBC iPlayer, as it has universal resonance beyond its fascinating historical particularities.