“We must become the shepherd of our own destinies”
Mangrove, the opening film of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, is a tale of racial struggle against police abuse. It is based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of men and women put on trial in London. (Yes, that’s right, racial prejudice is not the sole possession of America.)
The first half of the film focuses primarily Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian immigrant who in 1968 has just opened the Mangrove restaurant in the Notting Hill area of London. It serves the kind of spicy foods preferred by Caribbean people. Almost from the start the police, lead by Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell), begin harassing Crichlow and the restaurant. The restaurant becomes a gathering place for the immigrant community. In time they take issue with all the harassment and plan a protest. During the protest, the police attack the crowd. In the aftermath nine leaders of the community are put on trial for the serious charges of riot and affray.
The second half of the film is a courtroom drama. The defendants faced many years in prison. Their very lives were in the balance. And solicitors and barristers told them over and over to trust the system. But the defendants knew that the legal system was just as corrupt as the police. Two of the defendants chose to represent themselves, which allowed them the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and address the jurors. On the whole, the defense was an attack of the status quo of racial animosity. The trial became the first time the courts made note of the racial discrimination by the police force.
Thereare some comparisons to be made to The Trial of the Chicago 7 in that they occur roughly at the same time, both involve police caused riots, and the trials took on a rebellious tone. But this is by far a much better film.
The Small Axe anthology is a collection of five films by McQueen that focus on the world he grew up in. His parents were from Grenada and Trinidad. At least four of the films are based on actual events and people. It shows the black immigrant society as a vibrant culture of music, color, language, and joyous celebrations—but also frequently hardship because of a racist system.
This film shows some of the different manifestations of racism. (And we need to note that these forms are as relevant in this country as they are in the UK of the film.) The racism that we see in PC Pulley is the kind of blatant racism that repels us. (“The thing about the black man is he has his place. He’s just got to know his place.”). He and other police officers regularly hassle random black people for no reason. In court they suggest that all blacks are “criminal, prostitutes, ponces, and the like”.
But when the film switches to being a courtroom drama, the entire system comes under scrutiny for the ways that racism has been institutionalized, such as the make up of the jury, the way defendants are supposed to put their trust in the “professionals”, and the ways the judge fails to allow them to have voice. This kind of racism can be even more injurious because the system gives the impression of fairness, but often that impression is an illusion.
The film also touches on the responsibility of both intentional and accidental leaders. Crichlow really did not aspire to being a community leader. He just wanted to run his restaurant. He told one of the more strident leaders, “It’s a restaurant, not a battle ground”. But when circumstances continued to escalate, he had to make choices that pushed him into leadership. We also see in Crichlow the struggle of facing the risk that leadership brings. He is torn at times between doing what would be safe and doing what is right.
To do the right thing often is a matter of faith. Throughout the film, the defendants are told to have faith—in the judicial process. They hear it so often it becomes a joke to them that they should expect the system to come through for them. Others suggest that the characters need to have faith in the community to stand in solidarity. But at a crucial time, Frank, unable to sleep, sits on his bed and opens his Bible to a picture of his parents. On the back it reads, “In God you must trust.” There he finds the strength to carry on with what is right.
Mangrove (and the other Small Axe films) are streaming on Amazon Prime.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios.