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LFF 2020 Review: Mangrove – “Delivers visceral joy, disgust and thrilling drama”

During every film, a bargain is struck between filmmaker and audience. The terms vary, but essentially it is an exchange of money and time for entertainment. Job done, everybody happy. Except, on occasion, a filmmaker delivers so much more; a distillation of the human condition in pursuit of education or change. There are very few people, and fewer directors still, whose affection and empathy for humanity outweighs that held by Steve McQueen, and Mangrove is a fine addition to his catalogue. Mangrove forms part of a TV film series called Small Axe – named after a West African proverb about strength in unity. All of the Small Axe movies tell stories of a specific black experience, while actively encouraging those who can never truly understand it to try.

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Back specifically to Mangrove: don’t let this high-minded praise detract from the fact that this movie is a great watch. It delivers visceral joy, disgust, fear and a thrilling courtroom drama originating from the actions of a small London restaurant’s customers. Based on historical fact about the “Windrush” generation, and covering the 1960s to the 1980s, the titular Mangrove is a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill. It’s also – importantly – a successful black-run business and a hub for London’s black community to meet, talk and simply exist without fear of reprisal from a white police force empowered by racist political tensions.

McQueen paints life in and around The Mangrove with vivid colour and tone. Full of music, dancing, a warming balm to the very real horrors outside of its door – that soon make their way inside. Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes) runs the Mangrove, serving delicious dishes “for a particular palate” to famous characters such as Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), Black Panther Altheia Jones-Le Conte (Letitia Wright – never better) and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall, also fantastic). Where there is community, community activism follows, which terrifies the local police force, particularly PC pulley (Sam Spruell – menacing) who regularly raids the Mangrove on the basis of spurious rumours that it is a den of iniquity. Eventually, after suffering numerous beatings and acts of police vandalism, the group exercise the right to protest their mistreatment – mirroring today’s world events – by marching local streets. The march proves a pivotal overspill of tensions from the police and leads to accusations of harm made against peaceful protesters. The accused are to be tried at The Old Bailey, normally a venue for cases involving the most serious criminal activity. With the help of lawyer Ian Macdonald (Jack Lowden, using his own accent, presumably) the accused (later known as The Mangrove Nine) defend themselves against a fundamentally prejudiced system

What elevates a McQueen drama, apart from great acting, is his rich visual landscape. The location settings are pitch-perfect, as are the audio-visual motifs. McQueen gut-punches the viewer by showing carefree scenes being destroyed by brutal violence before ending on silence punctuated only by the ringing sound of utensils (imagine the spinning top at the end of Inception except spinning it caused senseless pain). Back to the performances, although everyone is great, Wright’s Altheia is a powerhouse, so passionate and eye-catching on-screen. Wright could be nominated for awards, but whether these will be under a TV or film header is anyone’s guess!

Finally, having a black filmmaker make Mangrove avoids any white saviour narrative, which could easily be suggested by someone without McQueen’s care and understanding of the subject matter. Mangrove is so timely – as both a slice of historical fiction and of current fact.

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