It’s great that films like Mangrove exist. However, I would like to wake up in a world where they are no longer needed, a world where Martin Luther King’s dream has become reality. Yet, his dream for his four little children to live in a world where they are judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character remains just that – a dream. To make it a reality the world needs all the help it can afford: activists, leaders, martyrs… and storytellers who will use their talents to help us focus and contextualize the values we want to – and must – fight for.
Steve McQueen has never been interested in telling stories for the sake of doing so or to provide accessible entertainment for people to enjoy on their night out on the town. Even the more accessible of his films, such as Widows, can be difficult to process to some viewers, which is often connected to the way he uses extremely long takes to oppress the viewer and force them to process what is happening in the frame in real time. Naturally, he has been recognized as one of the leading voices in the resurgent wave of black filmmaking because the issues concerning race have consistently remained central to his work (12 Years A Slave, Widows). Though, pigeonholing McQueen’s output under the umbrella of black activism would be at the very least reductive. It is most assuredly a big part of a wider artistic journey, which is better described more generally as cinema of Davidian struggle.
Whether it was Bobby Sands and his stubbornly tragic martyrdom, Solomon Northup’s hellish odyssey to regain freedom, a wronged women’s quest for retribution, or even a frail man’s ordeal against his towering sickness, all Steve McQueen’s films have been joined at the hip in exploring the notion of seemingly insignificant underdogs rising against their oppressors. And in this context his newest creation, a five-part miniseries Small Axe, looks to truly inhabit this message. Even the title of the series alone hints at this possibility. Taken from Bob Marley’s lyric “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”, it clearly indicates McQueen’s mission is to recalibrate this overarching theme of his entire artistic career to more decisively champion the corner of black Britons by telling stories we need to hear right now. To remind the world of their struggle which continues to this day, albeit in subtler forms as well as to underscore that the smallest people are perfectly capable of precipitating great change.
One such story is Mangrove, a retelling of what became known as “The trial of the Mangrove 9”. On paper, this period piece built upon flamboyant performances and the innately compelling nature of a courtroom drama could be overlooked as a schmaltzy awards bait and could be set against Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7. It would be a tremendous mistake to do so. This is not a cynical attempt at tapping into the frequency of the zeitgeist with an express desire to pander to the film’s target audience. Mangrove is a reminder of the complex and painful genesis of what we now understand as the modern multicultural society. Its central story of a West Indian restaurant opened in the late 1960s in Notting Hill is an indispensable tool to engage the viewer in a conversation about the societal values of equality and tolerance and the fact they were never given to anyone for free, but had to be fought over and won at great cost.
It is truly fascinating and frighteningly visceral to observe how McQueen weaves this story with relentless conviction to both celebrate the achievement of these nine people who stood up for a community they were trying to build and sustain, and to condemn the immovable monolith of conservative prejudice and irrational sense of superiority they successfully undermined. It is an anthem to the tenacity of spirit and resolve displayed by people who were systematically persecuted, demeaned, discouraged and mistreated by a country they thought was their home. McQueen accomplishes this without ever resorting to cheap emotional manipulation and instead uses visual honesty, brutal and discomforting as it may be at times.
What he does is simple: he points the camera and lets it record everything it must record to convey the truth of what happened. Relentlessly. Interestingly, in contrast to McQueen’s other films, Mangrove more decisively places the camera in the fray. It is always hanging on someone’s shoulder when the police are raiding the restaurant, vandalizing someone’s apartment or making a racially-motivated arrest. It’s pushed and tugged on during the recreation of the infamous 1970 protest against police brutality. Consequently, when the story eventually makes its way to the Old Bailey courtroom, where it spends its entire latter half, McQueen doesn’t change his stance. He films almost everything in aggressive closeup as though to reinforce his central thesis that history is made by people. Their faces must be seen and the filmmaker never fails in doing so.
Quite frankly, Mangrove is an essential film to be seen, especially in 2020. It is a story that needed to be told because fifty years after these events, a lot remains to be done to make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality. It’s brutal and unsettling both in the way it indicts the status quo of the time and in the way it forces the viewer to reflect on how relevant it remains today. However, this film must also be remembered as a celebration of human resilience and the ability of the most insignificant people to step up to the plate, defend their community and become a voice for those who lack courage or strength to stand up for themselves. Mangrove is a tale of heroism and martyrdom that not only fits perfectly as a continuation of Steve McQueen’s pursuit of understanding the power imbalance between oppressors and their victims, but epitomizes it completely. It is a wonderful piece of filmmaking that must be seen, processed and understood, because it speaks volumes about Britain’s troubled legacy of colonialism and racial injustice, as well as the brave souls who picked up the gauntlet to fight it.