Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated Small Axe anthology, starring exciting British talent such as John Boyega and Letitia Wright, is heading to the BBC starting this Sunday. The series consists of five original films which highlight how London’s West Indian community experiences have been shaped by racial injustice and discrimination. Opening with Mangrove, which premiered to much fanfare at this years virtual London Film Festival, there’s a particularly affecting and timely feel to this collection.
Set in 1968 Notting Hill, Mangrove centres on Trinidadian restaurant owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and the years of police harassment he encountered. This period was an important turning point in the UK civil rights movement, leading to the black activist community standing up in protest against the Metropolitan police. The peaceful demonstration, in partnership with the Black Panther Movement, was disrupted by heavy-handed policing, subsequently leading to the arrest and trial of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ in 1970.
McQueen has crafted a hugely compelling and impassioned piece examining a key moment in Black British history, featuring timely and affecting themes of police brutality, institutionalised racism and anti-racist protesting. The pacing never lets up in the 124 minute runtime, combining moments of rousing marches, community drama and courtroom procedural. There’s a real urgency and emotion to the script, with McQueen shining a light on the all too familiar social and racial tensions, imploring for real change. Gripping throughout, the film truly comes into it’s own during the 11-week trial of the Mangrove Nine, celebrating the momentous and hugely influential case at the Old Bailey. [expose the political nature of the trial and the brutality of policing in Notting Hill]
Mangrove features a hugely talented ensemble cast, lead by the brilliant Shaun Parkes as the reluctant leader of this community, Frank Crichlow. Shining throughout, Parkes brings a tired frustration and restrained anger to the role, garnering real empathy from viewers, particularly in an affecting scene highlighting police brutality at the Old Bailey. Black Panther star Letitia Wright continues her excellent streak as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, a hugely passionate campaigner for racial equality. McQueen expertly balances the larger events with more intimate and quieter character moments, affording a real sense of depth and audience connection to the Mangrove Nine. Scenes in the Mangrove restaurant highlighting the affectionate relationship between Frank and Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) and Dalston (Gary Beadle) also make for a needed respite of warmth.
Production designer Helen Scott and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner have built a hugely authentic and immersive world. There’s an almost tangible atmosphere to Notting Hill’s bustling West Indian community, brought to life by the vibrant reggae music and steel drums, along with the food and colours of the street parties and Mangrove restaurant. The costumes and dressed sets are also fitting for the period, with McQueen cleverly weaving archived photos into the proceedings to add an extra level of authenticity.
Mangrove is absolutely outstanding, marking an impressive opening to McQueen’s much-anticipated Small Axe anthology. The film is an utterly compelling and a timely watch, full of urgency and emotion. Letitia Wright and Shaun Parkes are the standouts in a truly fantastic ensemble which bring to life this powerful moment, particularly resonating in what feels like an ever divided Britain.
The Small Axe anthology airs on a weekly basis starting from November 15 on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.