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

Speaking to Sight & Sound at the time of the release of Widows two years ago, Steve McQueen offered a refreshing challenge to the platitude that our current cultural moment is a TV golden age: “Some of this new TV is so rubbish because they try to squeeze every drop and keep it going, even when the narrative has finished,” McQueen claimed. “Moviemaking is about craft, about storytelling… It’s the best form because there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Rather than stretching it out.”

With those remarks in mind, it may seem surprising to find McQueen turning to the small screen for his first post-Widows project. But Small Axe, a BBC and Amazon Studios-produced five-part anthology series exploring Black British experiences from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, is about as far removed as can be imagined from the excesses of the kind of TV that McQueen criticises. The scorching first episode, Mangrove, suggests that the series as a whole represents a return to the kind of distilled, focused storytelling and socially relevant themes that distinguished BBC’s Play for Today.

That comparison resonates, since Play for Today debuted the same year that the pivotal event dramatised in McQueen’s film took place: the Mangrove March of August 1970. The focus is on the trial of the ‘Mangrove Nine’, a group of West Indian activists charged with incitement to riot and affray after their protest against police racism ended in violent clashes. The trial at the Old Bailey, where two of the group chose to represent themselves, became a cause célèbre, resulting in the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the British police force.

Shaun Parks as Frank Crichlow and Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones

The subject matter (previously covered by a Horace Ové-produced, Franco Rosso-directed 1973 documentary) could scarcely be more timely. But like other recent films dealing with histories of community activism – Robin Campillo’s widely praised BPM (2017), Mike Leigh’s underrated Peterloo (2018) – Mangrove is all about immersing the viewer in its historical moment rather than hammering home aspects of contemporary relevance. In the case of McQueen’s film, in particular, there’s simply no need. Without any necessity to push, the film speaks directly to the context of Black Lives Matter – as well as referring the viewer back to one of the most polarising moments in Widows: the scene depicting the police shooting of a young biracial male character.

At over two hours, Mangrove is by far the longest of the episodes that make up Small Axe, and is very much a film of two halves.

The first half focuses on the Notting Hill community where the Trinidadian entrepreneur Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is opening his new Caribbean restaurant, the Mangrove, which becomes a focal point for the Black community and a target of frequent, racially motivated police raids. With ‘Powell for PM’ graffiti glimpsed on the streets, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner immerse us in the community in heartfelt, sensuous ways. When the characters are out, partying on the street, the camera is right there with them, a joyful participant, fluid and tactile, the music perfectly complementing the images. The camera is right in there, too, in the painful scenes of the raids, and in the central protest sequence – after which the film narrows down from a community portrait to the courtroom drama of Frank and his associates’ trial.

Malachi Kirby (standing) as Darcus Howe

The absence of several characters is felt in the second half but the courtroom scenes are handled with dexterity, bringing out the trial’s intricacies clearly and dramatically, and with wily work from Alex Jennings as the judge, Samuel West as the prosecution counsel and Jack Lowden as the Nine’s barrister. Though marred by moments of flat exposition, McQueen and Alastair Siddons’s screenplay brings out the contrasting personalities of a group coming together in a shared cause.

Malachi Kirby brings vibrancy to Darcus Howe, whether weathering domestic strife or proving a theatrical presence in the courtroom as he quotes Shakespeare and ties Sam Spruell’s rancid, scowling PC Pulley in knots. Moving from Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) to real-life Black Panther, Letitia Wright conveys the intellectual precision and practical passion of Altheia Jones. At the centre, Shaun Parkes’s piercing performance alerts us to every shade of frustration, anger, hope, and weariness that Frank feels.

Among the most important films of the year, and certainly one of its filmmaker’s finest, Mangrove sets the bar high for the rest of Small Axe – a series which McQueen hopes to develop further to explore Black lives in other British cities. The possibilities of the project seem wonderfully wide. Both intimate and monumental, Mangrove itself ends on a deliberately low-key, contemplative note that makes memorable use of the Maytals’ Pressure Drop and complicates any sense of triumph. Still, the film’s urgent, intelligent portrait of collective activism and resistance lingers. Connecting us to the past, Mangrove enlightens and empowers us in the present.

Further reading

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power

By Kehinde Andrews

Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

By Robert Hanks

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

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