Mangrove (2020)

Last week, Lovers Rock premiered as the opening night film of this year’s New York Film Festival. It was a perfect opening to the festival, providing a celebratory and communal atmosphere for audiences watching at home on their computer screens, longing for the traditional theatrical experience and festival energy. Though it was the first of three films from Steve McQueen premiering at this year’s festival, it’s actually the second installment in his upcoming five-film series Small Axe. The first is Mangrove, which tells the real-life story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black protestors who were tried in court for inciting a riot in west London in 1970. Unlike Lovers Rock, Mangrove is based on a true story, and it makes for an even more emotionally powerful and compelling film.

The story follows Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), who operates the Mangrove restaurant, which provides a place for locals to gather and enjoy spicy cuisine. We’re introduced to the characters through their everyday lives, listening to their conversations and even following a group outside for a beautiful dance scene set to steel drums which could easily fit into Lovers Rock. Soon though, McQueen disrupts the calm mood by setting up the source of conflict: a local police officer sits in his vehicle outside the restaurant, spouting a racist diatribe to his partner about the “place of the Black man.” This leads to a series of police raids on the restaurant, under the pretense of uncovering dubious operations, though Crichlow insists his business is legitimate, and of course they repeatedly find nothing to suggest otherwise.

The police harassment becomes so frequent and flagrant that Crichlowteams up with Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a Black Panther leader, and together they organize a protest march which turns violent when the police turn aggressive. The second half of the film depicts the court trial after Crichlow and Jones-LeCointe—as well as seven other Black protesters—are charged with inciting the violence. Their attorney Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden), encourages an idea suggested by Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) that he serve as his own legal representation, and Jones-LeCointe follows suit. By forgoing outside representation, they grant themselves the unique opportunity to make their voices heard and take their fate into their own hands. The trial that follows is captivating, as they fight for justice against likely odds, attempting to expose a corrupt police force within a similarly corrupt justice system.

McQueen’s sense of restraint prevents the film from being the rote and generic courtroom drama it could have been in other hands. The trial scenes are emotionally charged, especially when the Mangrove Nine speak up in their own defense, but there’s no sense that McQueen is playing to the rafters. The performances from Parkes, Wright, and Kirby are pitch perfect: imbued with furious energy under the surface but dialed in so as not to seem overly theatrical. There aren’t any big, obvious Oscar reel clips, which makes it clear McQueen isn’t interested in sensationalizing the material. The story of racist police officers harassing and attacking Black people has an absurd amount of modern relevance, so leaning into the parallels would only risk dulling the impact.

The film’s only misstep is in characterizing the officers. As mentioned, the first glimpse we have of the police shows the older, weathered constable training a younger officer by spouting his racist rant about “the Black man.” From there, it only gets worse: he gleefully destroys property during the many raids of the Mangrove and, most heinously, participates in randomly targeting and beating a young Black man, seemingly for fun (an apparently regular occurrence). If it weren’t painfully apparent how racism is systematically ingrained in the police, even today, this perspective of the police would seem like a cartoonish exaggeration of pure evil—his smirking attitude is reminiscent of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Making the police force a faceless entity might dilute the high stakes of the courtroom battle in the second half, but painting in such broad strokes does the material no favors. It’s a minor quibble, but one that prominently stands out against the rest of the film’s focus on naturalism, subtlety, and restraint.

Still, flaws and all, Mangrove is gripping and poignant, bolstered by some of the year’s best performances, Shabier Kirchner’s dynamic cinematography, and a characteristically evocative score by Mica Levi. It’s a brutal, but necessary reminder that the fight for racial equality and justice system reform hasn’t changed much in the decades since the Mangrove Nine fought for their right to protest peacefully. McQueen has delivered his most resonant film yet and another strong entry in a series which promises to be one of the year’s must-watch events.

B+

B+ NYFF

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