In Mangrove, the courtroom drama that opens his staggering BBC anthology series Small Axe, Steve McQueen tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black protestors put on trial in 1971 after demonstrating against police racism in Notting Hill. Summing up the significance of the trial towards the end of the film, one of the defendants – the late activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) – proclaims that “the history of Britain cannot now be written without it.”

It’s a reflexive line: by telling the story of the trial across two hours of prime time television, McQueen is himself fortifying its place in British history. It’s also an indictment of how rarely the story has been told before, this being the first screen depiction of the Mangrove Nine since a 1973 documentary directed by Franco Rosso and produced by Horace Ové, Britain’s first Black feature filmmaker.

Of course, to tell a story is not necessarily to do it justice, and Mangrove encourages the viewer to consider its responsibility to history, and the broader role of art in elucidating or distorting the past. The film also got me thinking about another piece of Black British history, the 1975 ‘Spaghetti House siege’, in which three gunmen held up the Knightsbridge branch of the Italian restaurant chain and issued a series of demands on behalf of the Black Liberation Army.

Ové was once again the first filmmaker to tell the story on screen, though on this occasion he was not alone. Where he saw an inflection point in the history of the Black liberation movement in Britain, a team of Italian filmmakers led by director Giulio Paradisi in 1982 saw an offbeat story about a group of Italian emigrants – the restaurant’s staff – caught up in a high-stakes hostage crisis. In my video essay Pasta as Prologue, I compare the two films to explore how these disparate visions generated two very different depictions of the same event.

Sight & Sound December 2020 issue

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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

“We have to study you in order to survive”: Horace Ové on Black and white Britain

By Sylvia Paskin

“We have to study you in order to survive”: Horace Ové on Black and white Britain

What is neorealism?

By kogonada

What is neorealism?

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