'Small Axe: Mangrove' Review: Perfect watch for fans of 'Trial of the Chicago 7' but with more representation
There is no denying that 2020 has been a year of reckoning – not just for the United States, but the world over. While the Black Lives Matter protests may have started in this country, it took over the entire world, especially in the United Kingdom. In America, while Hollywood representation continues to gain steam, there are stories of the oppression of Black people being told. Slowly, but surely, there are going to be more. Sometimes, however, we tend to forget that racism is not just an American issue and that Black people and people of color have had to endure systemic oppression everywhere. And when Black people have to take on the legal or the police system, our hopes are low because of systemic racism.
But that may not always be the case. Steve McQueen (director of '12 Years a Slave') brings to Amazon Prime Video his anthology of five films, called 'Small Axe'. Spanning three decades, beginning with Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the anthology series is set in London’s West Indian community and each film is released weekly. The first release from the anthology is 'Mangrove' and tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970. The trial that followed was the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police, an acknowledgment the police tried to have repealed but failed. It was only a small battle, but it made a world of difference.
The Mangrove was a popular Caribbean restaurant, in Notting Hill, West London that was opened in 1968 by Trinidadian community activist and civil rights campaigner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes). At the time, the area was relatively cheap, which made it popular among the Windrush communities setting up their lives in the city and the Mangrove served as a sanctuary to them. The Windrush community refers to the nearly half a million people who were moved from the Caribbean to Britain aboard the Empire Windrush ship between 1948 and 1970 after a severe labor shortage in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The local police would often harass the restaurant-goers and conduct raids on the premise of finding drugs – without any evidence or reason. Eventually, a peaceful protest was arranged in August 1970 against the Metropolitan Police's tactics, and a riot broke out, though the exact reason for the start of the riot is unknown. Nine people were charged with incitement to riot, including Crichlow, activist Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and intellectual Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) – the film focuses on the four individuals and the trial that followed.
If viewers get a feeling of deja vu, it is because it seems quite similar to another movie based on true events in America, Netflix's 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'. Like the Aaron Sorkin film, 'Mangrove' focuses on the trial and the intense fight that followed, as well as the defendants' struggle to be given just treatment. Unlike 'The Trial of the Chicago 7', however, 'Mangrove' is much more toned down. While Sorkin focuses on wit, McQueen focuses on the emotional moments, making 'Mangrove' an intense watch that is completely worth your time. And unlike in the Netflix film, 'Mangrove' gives us a more optimistic ending when the mostly white jury acquits the nine accused of the incitement to riot charge – the camera completely focuses on Crichlow, who breaks into tears (and so will you). There are no frills with 'Mangrove', giving the viewer the opportunity to focus on the actual history rather than the dialogues.
'Small Axe: Mangrove' reminds us that the fight against racial oppression and injustice is not new. It also reminds us that sometimes, what's right will triumph. While 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' was a great film in its own right, 'Mangrove' reminds us exactly why Steve McQueen is the filmmaker to watch out for.
'Small Axe: Mangrove' is available to stream on Prime Video on Friday, November 20.