There’s no getting away from the fact that a watershed moment for the peaceful Black Lives Matter movement happened in 2020. A movement of people across the world demanding equality for black communities, garnered seismic momentum following a handful of appalling acts of blatant racial prejudice, amidst the backdrop of a society that is deeply entrenched in racism and segregation. In the same year that a fiercely powerful and furiously relevant piece of filmmaking from Spike Lee reminded the world of the challenges the black communities face in the USA. It’s important to remember, that it’s not just confined to the USA where black communities have, for far too long, been dealing with the ugly nature of racism. Steve McQueen continues that trend, as MANGROVE (2020), the first of his SMALL AXE anthology films, brings into sharp focus that like the USA, Britain has been dealing with institutionalized racism for decades.
Set in 1960s London, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) runs the Mangrove restaurant, serving the finest Caribbean cuisine for the Notting Hill community. Yet despite no wrongdoing whatsoever, the restaurant is constantly being watched, and raided by the Police who are supposedly searching the business for drugs. Having become utterly and justifiably fed up of the constant and deliberately racially charged assault on the business, the black community protest against the Metropolitan Police and their appalling prejudice and bigotry. However, after the peaceful protest escalates into violence (due to the heavy handling of the demonstration by the police), the leaders of this new resistance find themselves in legal peril. Incredulously, they, not the police, are facing hefty criminal charges that could lead to substantial prison sentences.
Within the first few minutes of the film, McQueen establishes the Mangrove restaurant as a vibrant place to experience some excellent cuisine and enjoy the wonderful culture. With a thriving black community living in the area, for many people, the Mangrove restaurant represents their home away from home. Yet McQueen makes it disturbingly clear that not everyone in the community shares the love for the restaurant, its manager or its patrons. The first half of the film is an unflinching look at the institutionalised racism that the Metropolitan police bring down on this community, using blatantly fictitious excuses to carry out raids and stopping people in this community for no justifiable reason, purely down to the colour of their skin.
When the second half and the much publicized trial begins, it’s at this point that the film gets even better, and becomes considerably more tense. Every single one of these performances shine, but special mention must go to Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby. As the man who’s at the center of this battleground, Parkes’s performance as Frank is initially quiet and reserved. He’s a man who just wants to run his business peacefully. Though understandably, when it comes under constant attack, he gets very animated when it comes to defending his business and his customers. Letitia Wright’s work with the Marvel Cinematic Universe has garnered her popularity across the world. However with this heart-breaking performance as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the British Black Panther movement and a figurehead for those standing up against a system that is rigged against them, she gives the performance of her career. Likewise for Malachi Kirby’s Darcus Howe, a prominent Black Panther activist.
It’s hard to watch the trial unfold and and not be thoroughly disgusted at the blatant racism being depicted. From the treatment of the Mangrove restaurant to certain decisions made during the trial, as well the behavior of some individuals during the trial. It’s indicative of the appalling nature of the crooked and corrupt system that they were up against. As events in 2020 have demonstrated, the issue of racism and equality for black and ethnic minority communities is one that feels more timely than ever. At one point a character utters the memorable line “Together we become stronger.” In this one of the most turbulent of years in living memory, this line of dialogue speaks volumes of the power of unity and togetherness, one that we as humanity, the single species that we are, must continuously unite behind.
Flawlessly acted, with a powerful and timely message at its heart, MANGROVE shines an urgent spotlight on the deep rooted institutional racism that’s sadly still relevant in modern society.