Writers Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons
Director: Steve McQueen
Opening the London Film Festival for the second time in two years is a rare achievement, especially for a director with only four previous full-length features to his name. But Steve McQueen is no ordinary filmmaker. Part of the Small Axe series created for the BBC to be shown later in the year, Mangrove is the culmination of everything he has achieved to date, asking just who is justice for?
Frank Critchlow opens the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill in 1968, as a place for the West Indian community to meet, share stories and eat meals prepared by the Critchlow family. After nine unfounded police raids in six weeks led by the insidious Frank Pulley, the community led by Frank, Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-Lecointe decide to fight back with a protest that pits them against the Establishment and the Mangrove 9 is born
It would be easy for McQueen to have made a conventional courtroom drama, start the film with the march and ensuing clash with the police, then focus entirely on the back and forth as lawyers and judges make decisions on behalf of the defendants. But McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddon are interested in the personal, framing their film with an insight into the lives and context that made the trial only a moment in a longer experience of prejudice and attack.
It uses three narrative perspectives to explain the role of the restaurant and the reluctant emergence of Critchlow as a leading figure in the neighbourhood, a man trying to run a legitimate business, alongside the political impetus of Howe and Jones-Lecointe as they first recognise the limitations of British justice and then actively pursue self-organisation, protest and representation. Frank may argue “that this is a restaurant not a battleground” but as Mangrove demonstrates change was coming so “we mustn’t be victims but protagonists” Jones-Lecointe insists.
That evidence of transformation is everywhere in McQueen’s film, from the first tracking shot that leaves Frank and rises above the rooftops of Notting Hill to show the construction and redevelopment happening nearby to the shots of cranes and building sites that capture a period where the city itself felt on the brink of change in almost every sense. But McQueen and Siddon never lose sight of the individual struggle, that sacrifices must be made and great risks taken by the individual in winning the battle that starts a far longer war.
Taking his experience from Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows, McQueen focuses on people on the edges of society where extraordinary action is needed to make a difference. His camera never shies away from violence, drawing parallels between the dancing revelry as the restaurant opens and the heaving mass of bodies as police and protesters engage. Yet, every single shot is a work of art – a notable achievement in over two hours – the beauty of Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography, the lighting and use of a muted yet still bright 60s palette make Mangrove an extraordinary and visually immersive experience.
In a superb cast, Shaun Parkes brings depth and meaning to the role of Frank, a man propelled by circumstance to a leadership he didn’t seek and one that weighs heavy as the film unfolds. Letitia Wright as the impassioned Altheia along with Malachi Kirby as Darcus and Rochenda Sandall as his partner Barbara Beese give excellent performances as the leaders of the struggle envisaging a different kind of future. A quirky Jack Lowden plays a defence lawyer plus theatre stars Alex Jennings and Samuel West represent the Establishment along with a particularly venal Sam Spruell as Pulley.
“Sometimes words aren’t enough, but no one is going to help us unless we help ourselves” Darcus explains and McQueen’s film is testament to the West Indian community and its fight for acceptance in a country it was invited to live in. So, watch Mangrove and be horrified, moved and inspired by it, because, relating to a West Indian proverb, Small Axe means ‘together we are strong’. What a start to the London Film Festival 2020 and what a message.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October