Steve McQueen’s “Small Ax” miniseries is certainly an ambitious endeavor. “Small Ax” is a set of five films, each chronicling different events in the British West Indian community between the 1960s and the 1980s. As of November 20, 2020, one film will be released per week on BBC One in the UK and Amazon Prime Video elsewhere. Our first look at the series is at the 58th New York Film Festival, where three of the five films debut—Lovers’ Rock, Mangrove, and Red, white and blue. McQueen had been trying to make “Small Ax” for 11 years, and if the first two entries are any indication, the project was worth the wait and effort.
Mangrove, the second entry to premiere at NYFF but the first of five films, is set in 1968 in Notting Hill, an area prone to race riots a decade earlier, but now home to the Mangrove Restaurant. The Mangrove caters explicitly to the local immigrant population with a menu of spicy Caribbean-influenced cuisine. As popular as it is, the restaurant, its owner Frank Crichlow (an intense and electric Shaun Parkes) and patrons are regularly subjected to abuse by racist local police.
Frank begins to receive help from young Black Panthers frontman Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright, wielding serious star power here) and journalist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), when a few too many police raids resulted in a massive march. 150 community demonstrators against 300 hostile police. A violent altercation resulted in a swift crackdown, and Crichlow and eight others (‘The Mangrove Nine’) were tried on charges of ‘incitement to riot’. Cue a brilliant legal drama.
Mangrove is an extremely timely and well-directed film. Despite its roots in an earlier era, the police brutality and injustice exhibited shockingly resembles modern events and tragedies that still occur in the United States. the memory of George Floyd, whose untimely death at the hands of a white policeman sparked the massive wave of racial justice protests that continue to be prominent around the world. In one declaration from the filmmaker:
“I dedicate these films to George Floyd and all the other black people who have been murdered, seen or invisible, because of who they are, in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. If you are the big tree, we are the little ax. Black lives matter. “
Mangroveas noted, the poignant character of Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright, each demonstrating the simultaneous psychological toll of repeatedly resisting racist injustice and the fair and complex anger of people ready to take a stand. (Also noteworthy is Jack Lowden’s excellent passionate turn as radical lawyer Ian Macdonald, and Malachi Kirby’s clever portrayal of a brilliant and engaged activist with more than a few tricks up his sleeve.) The writing as a whole is quite strong, showing well the emotional toll of the situation and the trial on each of the accused, and elsewhere underlining the brilliant long-drawn-out legal strategy employed by their counsel.
Absolutely Mangrove is as captivating as the courtroom dramas, with a strong historical narrative and interesting legal maneuvers, but it is the raw emotions and performances on display that will stay in the audience’s mind the most. Neither the script nor the performers retain an organic and honest engagement with police brutality or biased legal systems and their racist practitioners. Shocking as it is, the struggles of this community in the late 1960s in the UK appear little different from the struggles of communities fighting for racial justice today – an assessment that is undoubtedly sobering.
In all, Mangrove is an excellent and engaging film (indeed one of the best legal dramas in recent memory) and one that can be learned from in the modern age. If the rest of the series is this poignant (which I have no doubts about), we’re definitely going to have an emotional and eye-opening journey.