Review: Small Axe: Mangrove

The first film of Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) Small Axe anthology sets a high bar for the 5-part series.  Mangrove tells the true story of a group that would come to be called The Mangrove Nine. Centered on a restaurant in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London where the West Indian diaspora gather, it’s a harrowing indictment of the Metropolitan Police’s violent systemic racism and a powerful story of the community’s push-back that landed nine of them in a high profile court case. And while there are nine defendants, the film’s heart is with Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes, “Lost in Space”), the owner of the Mangrove restaurant who is one policeman’s favorite target. The film boasts great performances, intense action, and a yell at your television story.

From the moment Frank opens his restaurant PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) makes his every day a living hell. He smashes up the place, harasses the customers, closes it down, and does everything in his power to put Frank out of business. He and his fellow policemen also make bets about arresting and intimidating black citizens all over the neighborhood. And when the community has finally had enough, several of them plan a protest, a peaceful march to the police headquarters. But that turns violent when the police start using their clubs. Many are arrested. But the courts throw out the charges. Then, seeking to make an example of them, the government charges nine people, including Frank, with inciting a riot, a charge that would mean serious jail time.

The case is anything but a perfunctory courtroom drama. It’s a legal thriller. In fact, the case was responsible for opening the curtain on the deep racism that pervaded the British law enforcement.  The case also showed how the same racism that landed the defendants in court existed in the justice system. But the lawyer working with the Nine is smart and ready to shake things up. Instead of being the white savior, he’s happy to have several of the defendants become their own legal counsel, giving them the agency to question witnesses and speak to the jury. Letitia Wright (Black Panther) is particularly memorable as real-life Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe.

It was hard watching the film and not comparing it with another film I watched last week, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Both are about people protesting and being arrested and made examples of by the powers that be. They took place within a couple of years of each other. But the Mangrove Nine weren’t fighting to end a war, as lofty and deserving a goal as that was. They were literally fighting for their right to exist. And that gives the film more urgency. You’re invested in these men and women beating back the entrenched system. It’s powerful film. Well worth watching for the performances, the music, the history.

Now on to the second film in the anthology. Check back for that one. They’re streaming on Amazon.

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