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Steve McQueen’s Mangrove- Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steve McQueen’s latest release Mangrove is the first in his Small Axe collection of films for the BBC. It tells the story of the Mangrove Nine case in 1970, where a group of Black campaigners, increasingly frustrated about police harassment in their Notting Hill community, were put on trial for incitement to riot. At the centre of the police’s aggravation was the Mangrove restaurant, an establishment which since its opening in 1968 had become somewhat of a centrepiece for the West Indian community. The restaurant also regularly played host to intellectuals and leading figures of the British Black Panther movement, naturally putting it on the radar of local authorities.

Upon watching this film, the one thing that stood out was its setting. Production designer Helen Scott and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner help to create the feeling of West London in the early 1970s. Mangrove is presented in the film as being at the heart of the close bond and strong linkages that exist in the community. Despite this, it is difficult to ignore the lingering tension that accompanies all the community’s interactions. Whether it is during the annual Notting Hill Carnival or within the Mangrove restaurant itself, it feels like at any moment the police could come barging through on another targeted, pointless raid.

The acting performances were the strongest feature of this film. Letitia Wright, who had already established a name for herself through strong performances in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, gives what I would regard as her best performance to date. Her performance as Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe is filled with anger, frustration, and determination as she leads the fight against police repression of her community. Our introduction to Jones-LeCointe is on the factory floor where she is encouraging a group of South Asian men to join and actively participate in their trade union. A sign of her charismatic ability to express the shared struggle of London’s Black and South Asian communities at the time.

The one thing McQueen ought to be credited for is the central role he gives to Black women in this film. Despite the bulk of the cast being made up of Black men, the performances that stand out for me are Rochenda Sandall’s performance as Black panther Barabara Beese and Michelle Greenidge as community organiser Mrs Manning. By emphasizing the role of strong female characters, McQueen goes where many other directors working in the same genre have missed the mark.

The film just happens to be released at the same time as Aaron Sorkin’s US historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which concerns anti-Vietnam demonstrators similarly being accused of inciting violence. Whilst clear similarities lie in the subject matter of both films, I found Mangrove much more realistic and passionate with performances that are straight from the heart. While the issues at the heart of Sorkin’s film are no doubt of importance, in this film it feels that there is so much more at stake. You can’t help but think that whole livelihoods rest on the verdict of the Mangrove trial. I will leave you to see what happens…

Image: Gabbo T via Wikimedia Commons