British director Steve McQueen, likely best known to American audiences for his Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, is set to dominate the final stretch of 2020. Partnering with both the BBC and Amazon, McQueen has created a five-film anthology series about the Black experience in Britain, titled Small Axe after a proverb popularized by Bob Marley. After some of the five played at festivals in New York and London, they will now make their way to the general viewing public, dropping one-by-one on Amazon Prime in the US. The first of the anthology, Mangrove, released yesterday, and you can expect a new installment every Friday for the next month— and, if the quality of this initial movie is any indication, what a good month it will be.
Mangrove dramatizes the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black British activists tried in 1971 for inciting a riot while protesting the West London police. The film focuses primarily on three of the nine defendants: British Black Panthers leader Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright); Trinidadian activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby); and Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), owner of the frequently raided Mangrove restaurant that inspired the protest. Exploring each of their roles from the Mangrove’s early targeting by police through their famous trial, McQueen’s Mangrove examines how London’s Afro-Caribbean community rallied to turn one of many expressions of systemic prejudice into a landmark moment of their history.
With their being released so close together, viewers of Mangrove are sure to be reminded of The Trial of the Chicago 7, though any detailed comparison of the two is unlikely to reflect kindly on the latter. Where the prominence of Sorkin’s singular style is a key feature of his work, McQueen lets himself fade into the background, leaving nothing but story and character to steal the viewer’s focus. He follows a chronological structure and does not approach the history self-consciously— viewers feel and accept the larger significance of events onscreen only as the characters do, as the participants themselves would have. The result is a sense of history being (re)made rather than revisited, and the film’s momentum is irresistibly gripping. The characters share that same feeling, and McQueen probes the ways it both excites and terrifies them, interested in uncovering the cost for those individuals chosen to bear its weight.
This is not to say the director’s hand disappears entirely. Outside of the careful use of framing and color throughout, McQueen makes a significant impact on the storytelling with just a few subtle touches. Pay close attention to camera movement and you’ll notice the slight shake that characterizes early scenes of the community’s jubilance is absent when filming the policemen, and stillness slowly takes over as Frank feels his options for recourse dwindle. When entering a courthouse, the camera shoots from far above the action, something you really notice in a film so invested in close-ups. And, in perhaps his most direct injection of meaning into the story, a montage of a highway’s construction designed to mark the passage of time ends up positioning London’s Afro-Caribbean community as foundational to the city’s identity. There is deeper meaning to be found in choices such as these, but McQueen keeps the bulk of Mangrove’s significance in plain sight, capturing a community’s resilience in a film as gripping as it is inspiring.