Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power

Representing the true protagonists of the protests and landmark 1970 court case that followed discriminatory police raids on a Notting Hill restaurant, Mangrove makes a great start for Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet – and whets the appetite for more.

Mangrove (2020)

▶︎ Mangrove is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Amazon Prime in the US.

Watching Mangrove felt like home. The sights, sounds, accents, history all radiated a sense of Blackness in Britain that is rarely displayed on a mainstream platform like the BBC. We are so accustomed to the daily diet of Whiteness that we crave and praise the slivers of representation that we are offered. But Mangrove did not hold back, or compromise in its story of Black life. It’s hard to explain how refreshing it was to hear the range of Caribbean accents and the embrace of dialect that will sail far over the heads of many viewers. The soundtrack provided the perfect underscore for the experience.

The realities of police harassment and racism were fully on display. The sense of terror was palpable as each police raid brutally rained down on the Ladbroke Grove restaurant. ‘Under siege’ is the only way to describe how people of that generation saw the police presence, which felt like a colonial force. It is disturbing that many a parallel will be drawn to experiences today. During the court proceedings, the blatant lies of the police officers were starkly and humorously drawn out. The lack of trust in the official version of events is something we have had to price in to how we react to cases involving the police. The irony of the concept of a ‘criminal justice system’ was on full display for the public to see.

Mangrove is the first time I have seen a genuine attempt to represent British Black Power on mainstream television. Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-LeCointe, who represented themselves in the trial, were leaders of the British Black Panther movement, and it should not have taken more than 50 years for part of that story to make it to the small screen.

There is a real attention to detail. We hear of C.L.R. James and his classic work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. We also see Black Dimensions, a grassroots paper, being self-published on a mimeograph machine. The paper could have stood in for countless community publications like the Abeng, Black Voice and the West Indian Gazette, the first black newspaper, published by activist Claudia Jones.

Mangrove (2020)

We also see the protests, the slogans and the spirit of resistance that is the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of our presence in Britain. Not victims, not criminals, but as Darcus Howe put it “protagonists” who shape our own history. The representation of Jones-LeCointe is a landmark because too rarely do we see the indispensable role of Black women in our histories of activism.

The courtroom scenes were especially symbolic, given that one of the untold impacts of British Black Power was to shake up institutions. We see a contempt for the pomp and ceremony of the Old Bailey, and the white men in wigs parading as justice. I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms, shadowing my dad who was a criminal defence solicitor, and it was invigorating to see the stale, pale format overturned. The crowded court gallery continually intruded with murmurs of disapproval, laughter and yells of encouragement, and shouts of “liard!” and “hallelujah” gave the proceedings the feel of a community meeting. The ‘not guilty’ verdict is shown to be a result of this subversion of the court system, forcing it to work on our terms and not conforming to the status quo.

My only fear is that the BBC will feel that it has fulfilled its requirement to cover Black power. Mangrove is a great starter to the history of black activism in Britain, but should leave us hungry for far more.

Further reading