If Lovers Rock provided a sensuous, feel-good vibe to the opening night of this year’s unusual New York Film Festival, Mangrove supplies a follow-up thwack to the head and punch to the gut. When Steve McQueen’s ambitious, five-part Small Axe miniseries is presented on Amazon Prime beginning November 20, Mangrove will be in the lead-off position (with Lovers Rock following the second week) and leave no doubt as to the project’s serious, hard-hitting objectives in painting a panoramic portrait of racial realities for London’s West Indian immigrant population from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
Long since gentrified, Notting Hill was in steep decline after World War II and in 1958 was the scene of severe race riots. After running a fashionable café in the neighborhood for a decade, islands-born Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in 1968 opened the cozy titular establishment, specializing in Caribbean cuisine like curries, and crab and dumplings. He even bought a fancy espresso machine.
But the local cops don’t like the look of the place or its customers and, with no provocation, begin hassling Crichlow, warning him, “The Black man’s got his place. But he’s got to know his place!” The restaurant is raided over and over — one time the police storm in, swinging batons at lunchtime — but, despite dwindling business, the boss keeps the doors open.
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As depicted here, Crichlow himself has a very low boiling point and is easily provoked by the police. But he’s helped by more skillful political organizers, beginning with young Black Panther movement leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (a forceful Letitia Wright) and activist journalist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).
After nine unprovoked police raids on the Mangrove, an August 1970 protest turns into bedlam when 150 marchers run up against 300 police. Then one of the ultra-left protesters resorts to violence, giving the police all provocation they need to knock heads and create mayhem. In the event, Crichlow and eight others — they’re soon dubbed “The Mangrove Nine” — are brought up on charges of inciting a riot and given a trial date at, of all places, the venerable Old Bailey, where the usual bill of fare is major criminal cases.
In a setting where judges and barristers still wear pinned-on white horsehair wigs, the tradition sits all the more amusingly on the white attorney representing the defendants. Engagingly played by Jack Lowden, Ian MacDonald is a perennially disheveled and geeky mess who barely looks old enough to have graduated law school. But he’s a crafty and radical thinker who guides his charges through a precarious legal minefield and, from the results, has prepared them very well indeed.
This preparation extends in impressive measure to the eloquent speeches the defendants deliver on their own behalf. One after another, the young accused passionately, articulately and — so it would seem to an outsider — quite boldly throw back the charges made against them onto their accusers in addresses of considerable sophistication and power. In actuality, the trial, of which just two of the jury members were Black, went on for 11 weeks, and it had to have been difficult for McQueen and co-screenwriter Alastair Siddons (2018’s Tomb Raider) to trim the epic case down to a manageable length.
The keen-minded judge is another intriguing character in the way he imposes his will and expresses displeasure with the sometimes vociferous behavior of those in court. But at the same time, he plays his cards very close to his chest, and Alex Jennings makes him a character about whom, in a different movie, one would like to know more.
What charges the drama so powerfully all the way through is the boldness and guts with which the defendants and their lawyer take on such an entrenched establishment in which they are such clear outsiders; it’s a situation in which every historical benchmark to date suggests they don’t stand a chance of prevailing. A more conventional film would undoubtedly have included domestic scenes in which parents and others would have counseled their charges to adopt a less confrontational approach. But instead, these defendants have not only accepted but embraced their opportunity to possibly change things. In that they succeeded and, partly because of this film, will continue to inspire. “I believe history is on my side,” one of them says with notable clairvoyance, and it’s a message that will connect with viewers in the UK and, perhaps particularly, in the U.S. at this moment in time.
The series’ overall title, Small Axe, comes from a 1973 Bob Marley song bearing the lyrics, “If you are the big, big tree, we are the small axe ready to cut you down.” However, the accused in that context were not so much government figures as the bosses controlling the Jamaican music industry at the time.
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