Director Steve McQueen didn’t direct a movie for five years, between 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and 2018’s Widows. Now, in one year, he’s made five movies.
That is if you consider McQueen’s Small Axe cycle to be movies at all. The five films— all of which tell stories of people of color living in England between the 1960s and 1980s— are showing one week at a time on the BBC and now on Amazon Prime, which will likely lead to arguments over whether or not they should be categorized as movies or TV episodes. But they’re movie-length, and the first three of them debuted as films at the New York Film Festival this fall.
The first of the movies, Mangrove, arrived on Amazon over the weekend, and it gets the series off to a thrilling, exhilarating start.
Mangrove tells a story that’s likely much better known in Britain than it is elsewhere, of the Mangrove Nine. They were a group of activists who congregated at the Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant and music venue in London’s Notting Hill section.
Police frequently raided the establishment, leading to a clash in August of 1970 that was characterized as a riot by Scotland Yard. The Mangrove Nine then ended up on trial.
The film tells this entire story, from the early days of the restaurant to the raid, with the trial taking up the film’s entire second half. It’s a very similar story to Aaron Sorkin’s recent Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago Seven, even covering events that took place just a year later. However, the story structure of Mangrove is very different, going in a more linear manner than the trial-as-framing-device and jumping around of the Sorkin movie.
The cast includes Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow, the owner of the Mangrove restaurant, and Letitia Wright (from Black Panther) as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, who was actually a member of the British wing of the Black Panther Party. There’s also Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), two other Panthers who were also a couple.
McQueen is clearly telling a story that’s very important in twentieth-century British history, much as the Chicago 7 is often talked about by Americans who were at the frontlines of politics in the late ’60s. But for those unfamiliar with the events, Mangrove tells the story in a way that’s powerful, if often infuriating.
The next film in the Small Axe cycle, Lovers Rock, isn’t nearly as incendiary- it’s primarily about a dance party, of all things.
But Mangrove nevertheless gets the Small Axe series off to a fantastic start, with a compelling examination of an important moment in history.