'Mangrove' Review: Steve McQueen Stages A Riveting Courtroom Drama On The Front Lines Of History [NYFF 2020]

There have been a lot of conversations about Black pain as of late, whether in the news or in the movies. How do you thoughtfully depict it? Where is the line drawn? I'm far from an expert on the topic, but it seems to me that Steve McQueen, in Mangrove, the second of his Small Axe films, has found at least one answer: counterbalance that Black pain with Black joy.

Set in 1968 Notting Hill, Mangrove is a snapshot of a pivotal turning point in the civil rights movement in the U.K.: the trial of the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists arrested for inciting a riot at a protest against police. But more so than being about this moment in History, with a capital "H," Mangrove is concerned with the stories of the real-life characters who get drawn into the battle between the West Indian community that frequent the cozy Mangrove restaurant and the police officers that frequently harass them.

Mangrove centers on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes, full of pathos and warmth), the owner of the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that had become the unlikely community base for locals, activists, and everyone in between. But their lively haven is frequently invaded by the local police, who stage regular raids of the Mangrove in baseless searches for drugs and prostitutes. At the end of his rope, Frank agrees to lead a peaceful protest against the police, which breaks out into violence; nine men and women, including Frank and leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (an impassioned Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (a sturdy Malachi Kirby), are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot.

The most traditionally biographical of McQueen's Small Axe films so far, Mangrove overcomes the hurdles of its more straitlaced biopic contemporaries by being so vitally alive. The Mangrove itself, a Caribbean restaurant that only serves spicy foods and is the site of many a spontaneous singalong, is often bathed in warm, rusty hues. Even during the intimate chats that Frank has with his employees or restaurant regulars, the Mangrove is never silent — whether it's the bustle of people in the background, or the steel drums that someone has whipped out for a surprise dance party that moves into the street, the entire community joining along in a frenzy of joy. The buoyant diegetic music, much like McQueen's previous Small Axe entry, becomes the soundtrack to the film and to its characters' lives. So when that music is ripped away in the second half, which transforms into a nail-biting courtroom drama, its absence is keenly felt.

Maybe the key to portraying Black pain onscreen is to show the importance of what we lose. We see this family that grows around the Mangrove, the love that the locals have for Frank — who, unbeknownst to him, has become the de facto leader of this community — and we get to fall in love with it, to live in its splendor for a little before the anger and injustice sets in. McQueen knows well the visual language of these kind of racially-charged biopics (he after all, directed the famously brutal 12 Years a Slave) and harnesses the audience's expectations, as well as the current realities we're experiencing, to elicit an even more visceral response to the police harassment of the Notting Hill locals. Even when the lead harasser of the Metropolitan Police, PC Frank Pulley (an amazingly punchable Sam Spruell) is so unmistakably vile and so abjectly evil, Mangrove never feels unrealistic in its depiction of racial hatred because of the state of the world right now. Mangrove thankfully never descends into the kind of brutality that 12 Years a Slave exhibited, but every time a police officer assaults an unassuming Black man or tears apart the Mangrove, you feel the pain — because you know what is being taken away.

It lends an urgency to the courtroom drama of the second half of the film. The entire trial is a barn burner, as the Mangrove Nine find the odds stacked against them: an obtuse judge who refuses to acknowledge the existence of racial prejudice, a prosecution that happily parrots the corrupt police officers' false stories, security guards who will bully them at a moment's notice. An entire movie could be made from solely the courtroom drama of this film, of its peaks and crashes — especially in the miraculous way that Wright's Altheia and Kirby's Darcus, who are the sole defendants who decide to represent themselves in court, manage to turn the tables. But we needed to know what the Mangrove means to the characters and its importance not just as a piece of history, but as a second home to its regulars.

"We must become the shepherds of our own destiny," Altheia passionately cries to the Mangrove Nine ahead of their trial. With Mangrove, it feels like McQueen has put the story — of Black pain, Black joy, and Black triumph — back in the hands of the London West Indian community.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10