The latest film to premiere in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, “Mangrove” is one of the year's most moving films. It tells the story of the “The Mangrove Nine,” who were put on trial in 1970’s London for inciting a riot at a protest. The trial involved various challenges by the nine to the legitimacy of the judicial process. All nine were eventually acquitted, and the incident became one of the most well-known acknowledgments of racially charged hatred amongst the Metropolitan police. That certainly doesn't make this an easy sit, since the real horror is realizing this still happens, but it’s one that needs to be seen. Coming off of the previous “Small Axe” installment “Lovers Rock,” McQueen spins the story in an entirely different way here. While “Lovers Rock” followed the pursuit of happiness and joy in his heart as a filmmaker, here we follow his anger and rage.
Intentions as strong as those would not work here without a stellar group of performances amongst the cast. Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow, who runs the Mangrove restaurant where most of this drama takes place, is a force of nature on screen. The anger, strength and general rage he feels in such a nightmarish circumstance feels so raw and real that it’s entirely engaging. Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the British Black Panthers in the 1960-70s, is more compelling than she’s ever been as a fighter for a worthy cause. A particular scene late in the film's courtroom section shows she is so much more than Shuri from Black Panther. Besides just being a renowned physician, she is incredibly moving as a fighter for freedom. Sam Spruell as the corrupt and racist PC Frank Pulley, is another haunting performance since it feels like someone we’ve recently seen in the news. It’s not necessarily the most nuanced performance, but one that strikes you with a cruel fear.
Even in the smaller roles of the “Mangrove Nine,” McQueen lets all of his actors make the most of the material. From two members of the nine having a baby and dealing with being in the public eye, to simply being the busboy of the Mangrove, all of the cast pays respect to these real people. Their humanism brings another layer of depth to how an audience connects to their plight. It’s a unique approach on McQueen’s part because he is pulling off a tonal balancing act. Especially in some of the more brutally realistic moments, being able to connect emotionally makes later moments more effective. However, none of this would work without the direction behind the camera.
McQueen is known for rather serious and emotionally involving stories like “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame” and “Hunger.” Those films really took their time and put an audience through a metaphorical emotional ringer that can sometimes be tough to watch. “Mangrove” isn’t an easy sit, but one that really satisfies in the emotional payoff. He is a director who knows his strengths and puts them on full display. Compared to "Lovers Rock," this is a tighter narrative with more in its structure. In “Lovers Rock," the film's laggy nature served the story, here the lag takes away from the emotion. It’s a rather small qualm, but one that really stops the film's momentum where it should be soaring.
Some may consider “Mangrove” to be McQueen sticking in his narrative wheelhouse, but that isn’t a bad thing. His movies are made with an intent to emotionally move an audience, even if it is through anger. Here, he accomplishes that very thing and makes even the mundanity of the courtroom a source of incredibly severe tension. If something with such a heavy subject matter as this doesn’t seem appealing, there’s nothing I can say to convince you. This is the type of film that clearly sets out what it wants to do and accomplishes it with an iron fist. When it drops on Amazon Prime in Nov., look no further if you want to take an emotional journey.
Watch the trailer here.