For the next five Fridays, Amazon Prime Video will be unveiling an ambitious series of new films from Steve McQueen, a director who’s never lacking in audacity. He’s made movies about political protest (Hunger), sexual addiction (Shame) and slavery (the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave) — and his sprawling 2018 crime drama Widows encompassed everything from gender inequality to class resentment to racial intolerance. He returns with the Small Axe anthology, five movies, all based on true stories, which study the fight for racial justice by West Indians living in London over the years. McQueen grew up in London with West Indian parents, so there’s undoubtedly an emotional connection to the material. But anyone living on Planet Earth — especially those who have been moved by this year’s Black Lives Matter protests — will want to tune in. Small Axe gets its name from an African proverb: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” If the first installment, Mangrove, is any indication, it’ll be well-worth watching McQueen chop that tree down each week.
Taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mangrove stars Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow, who runs the Mangrove, a restaurant known for its delicious, spicy West Indian cuisine. A hub for Black men and women in the otherwise lily-white Notting Hill neighborhood of London, the Mangrove is perpetually harassed by the cops — in particular, a racist bobby named Pulley (Sam Spruell) — for spurious reasons. Essentially, Pulley wants to antagonize Frank and his clientele in the hopes of provoking them into an altercation — or, even better, into closing down. The police’s open hostility attracts the attention of Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), the leader of the British Black Panther movement, who encourages Frank to raise public awareness by holding a peaceful protest. But their attempt at nonviolence only leads to a showdown with the cops. Around the same time that, in America, the Chicago Seven were on trial, the Mangrove Nine were arrested and charged with inciting a riot. In both cases, the brutishness was instigated by law enforcement — in both cases, the prosecutors tried to frame the defendants as lawless heathens.
At two hours, the film is almost perfectly divided into halves, with the first 50 minutes or so fleshing out the central players and the eventual protest, while the second segment is devoted to the court case. If you can avoid learning anything about the actual incident, I recommend it, because even though Mangrove is, ostensibly, a courtroom drama, it doesn’t necessarily follow the typical arc of that genre. (This feeling is also amplified because we’re watching a British court, which does a few things differently than an American one.)
But what makes Mangrove especially pointed is that, although it was made long before this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, it’s eerily attuned to our current collective consciousness. America is a beautiful country that is forever tainted by the stain of slavery and our inability to grapple with that legacy. But Mangrove is a reminder that other lands, with their own complicated history, have also had ugly moments of racial intolerance. The hope is that white people’s acceptance of our shared sins will inspire us to do better in the future. Mangrove isn’t quite so optimistic.
It’s fitting that McQueen would make Mangrove. Beyond the fact that he’s made movies about racism and protest, he seems to be drawn to characters in spiritual turmoil. That’s certainly true of the Black protagonists we meet in Mangrove. Frank is a patient but exhausted man — it’s hard enough to keep a small business running without fear of police reprisals at the same time. Meanwhile, Altheia is underestimated because she’s a woman and small of stature, but her iron will becomes important as the Mangrove Nine face trial — presided on by a white judge unsympathetic to their plight. Then there’s Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), a fiery activist who’s also arrested. Unlike many of the Nine, Darcus seems to be a natural leader — early on in Mangrove, we see him speaking commandingly on television about police brutality — but we’ll observe as he’s challenged by this incident, and how he responds during a climactic courtroom moment when eloquence is badly needed.
Those who saw Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 will no doubt draw comparisons to Mangrove. But as opposed to Aaron Sorkin’s showy (and shamelessly entertaining) drama, McQueen’s film cuts deeper. It’s less cutesy — less enamored with its clever quips and snazzy pace. Mangrove feels embedded in its characters’ bitter exasperation with a system that seeks to suppress them. Although Blackness is certainly central in Mangrove, it’s also a film about the immigrant experience — this West Indian community feels unwelcome in its new land, their accents and culture treated with disdain by the local white police force. (As the movie’s central antagonist, Spruell is adept at conveying the incurious bigotry of those in power.)
Because McQueen takes the time for us to really get to know the denizens of the Mangrove — Parkes, Wright and Kirby are all excellent — we come to understand that it’s not just a restaurant or a group of individuals who are imperiled. It’s the very idea of a more diverse society that’s under attack in Mangrove, and as a result, the film’s fascinating legal maneuvering and odd courtroom quirks — a few of the defendants decided to be their own lawyer — always have a higher purpose than mere plot twists.
Without realizing how topical he would be, McQueen is speaking to the very nature of political protest — and how institutions try to suppress free speech and turn its practitioners into dangerous others who need to be vilified. What goes on in Mangrove in the early 1970s is the same thing that happened in America this summer, with BLM protestors blithely labeled rioters and thugs. McQueen has such a deceptively unemotional approach — his movies are often steely in their remove — that we see with crushing clarity a society blind to these characters’ strife. The conventions of a courtroom drama aren’t so familiar when you’re this invested in what happens.
Just as Joe Biden’s victory hardly means the end of systemic racism in America, Mangrove’s outcome is far from the final word on British inequality. You can see that by watching the news — Brexit was, in part, about the U.K.’s anti-immigrant bent — but also by the fact that the Small Axe series still has four more chapters to go. Mangrove takes place long before Black Lives Matter. But it brilliantly depicts a struggle that is ongoing — and shows no sign of slowing down.