When the day comes to close the book on 2020, only a few topics will have had to fight for narrative control. But if there’s one thread worth taking forward from this otherwise shitty year, it’s that black lives matter and abuses of power should be held to account.
Of course, one might argue these are both topics increasingly in danger of being relegated to little more than subplot with everything else being thrown at us. So as a vital reminder of their importance (and a painful reminder that some things never change), Steve McQueen’s Mangrove really couldn’t come at a better time.
Set against a sumptuously detailed backdrop of 1970s Notting Hill, Mangrove introduces us to a vibrant local community populated largely by the West Indian immigrants who found a home there from the late 1940s onwards. On the face of it, this community of families, friends, political activists and local independent businesses is a thriving and happy one, but one that also lives under the suspicious and malevolent gaze of the Metropolitan Police Force.
From the film’s opening sequence, where we walk alongside Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) as he makes his way through the neighbourhood into the Mangrove restaurant which sits at its heart, it’s visually very easy to fall in love with. However, as you’d expect from the director of Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, it’s not long before McQueen rips away the romance, with the introduction of Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) – a man happy to make his feelings known about the district’s residents.
Pulley, backed by his simpering protege PC Dixon (Joseph Quinn), wage war on Crichlow’s restaurant believing it to be a hive for drugs and illegal gambling. A few uncomfortable conversations about Crichlow’s past and why the restaurant ‘doesn’t sell English food’ ensue, but save for these – and one particular comment about ‘coming over here and sleeping with our women’ – there’s very little to explain why Pulley and his colleagues carry all this hate. And yes, maybe this isn’t the film to explore white male fragility or the social factors behind such deeply entrenched racism in that era, but the sense that Pulley is ‘the baddie’ and this should be enough… does render him a bit one dimensional, even cartoonish.
That said, the film that Mangrove is and does intend to be, is as affecting as it is visually entrancing. Parkes is excellent as Frank Crichlow and, whether acting as defacto community leader or frustrated businessman, gets plenty of opportunity to both simmer and boil over at the hatred and injustice that confronts him every day. Likewise, Letitia Wright is mesmerising as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the smart, bold and irrepressible leader of the British Black Panthers, but the biggest surprise for me was Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe, a figure of popular culture I was familiar with, but apparently knew little about. Physically of course, there’s an incredible likeness between Kirby and Howe that’s difficult to ignore, but what makes the performance work so well has more to do with his sheer commitment. Not unlike the character of Howe himself, when Kirby enters the room, you look up. When he speaks, you listen.
For fans of McQueen (of which I count myself one) that trademark skill of knowing exactly when to let the camera hang a little longer than it might need to is thankfully present. And, whether illustrating chaos via the gentle rock of an upturned colander following a police raid on the restaurant, or frustration through the impotent protestations of an innocent man thrown into a court cell, it’s as compelling as ever. However it’s during the climactic court scene where McQueen’s creative watermark finds the most emotional impact; choosing to ignore the wider cast as the court decision is read, and focusing instead on every emotion running across Crichlow’s face. A thoroughly arresting moment in a film which isn’t exactly short of them.