Reel Reviews | Small Axe (Mangrove)

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

The Small Axe series of Amazon Prime starts with a courtroom drama documenting racial unrest in Great Britain called Mangrove.

Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) has opened the Mangrove, a restaurant with spicy Jamaican food in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London.  The restaurant becomes a local landmark for many Jamaican refugees and a meeting place for all including the local chapter of the Black Panther party headed by Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright).  Sadly, the restaurant has also drawn the ire of the area constable, PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) who launches frequent “raids” upon the restaurant destroying the décor and running off customers.  Jones, Crichlow, and some others decide the only way to fight back is to have a march to protest the actions of the police.  The march goes horribly wrong when it comes to confrontation with the police.  As a result, the Mangrove Nine are arrested and charged with riot and affray.

Written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen and directed by McQueen, Mangrove is a dramatic retelling of the famously true trial of the Mangrove Nine that stars Parkes, Spruell, and Wright with Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Jack Lowden, Gershwyn Eustache, Gary Beadle, Jumayn Hunter, and Alex Jennings. 

As a part of the Small Axe series (named from the Jamaican proverb that it even a small axe can cut down a large tree), McQueen focuses on the racial unrest and discrimination that was occurring in the late 1960s in London.  The trial of the Mangrove Nine has the distinction of being the first court case in London that addresses race in the country.

McQueen is extraordinary in his deliberate pacing.  There are many times when the movie grinds to a painstaking halt to allow the drama of the situation to sink in whether through the drag of a cigarette or even a fly in a window.  Using some sort of directorial wizardry, McQueen crosses the normal boundary of timeliness to take pauses that create moments that are extremely uncomfortable and thus communicate the pain of the characters on the screen.  In order for these pregnant pauses to be ultimately effective, McQueen places his actors in an environment where they must confidently remain in their character for far longer than usual.

Shaun Parkes (Trick or Treat, Netflix’s Lost In Space) deftly plays the reluctant restaurant owner who is forced into leading a revolt and bringing light to the plight of his people.  His anger is palpable and infuriating as he switches unpredictably between anger and hopelessness. Just like the restaurant, Parkes role is the center of the film and his performance gives the structure for all the others including the powerful Letitia Wright (Black Panther).

McQueen also does not shy away from authenticity in this film.  His costumes are perfect.  London scenery does not change much but McQueen makes sure the streets reflect the sixties.  The best part (or the worst depending upon how you see it) is the language.  The words, the accents, and the rhythms are definitely Jamaican.  He uses Jamaican actors to play Jamaican roles.  The result is that you might need to have the subtitles playing to figure out what is being said.  It’s really not a problem because even without subtitles the viewers get the gist of the conversations just from the work of the fantastic actors.

Because of its content and relevance, Mangrove will most likely draw comparisons to Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.  The fact that both trials of unjustly accused are where the comparison ends.  Where Chicago 7 is a drama rooted in the courtroom, Mangrove spends only the second half of the movie in the court.  Sorkin’s drama is a verbal masterpiece exhibiting his great ability to create intriguing and memorable scenes through dialogue but McQueen’s is a visual experience, a master class in cinematography and direction.

Rated TV-MA for violence and gore, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking, and frightening and intense scenes, Mangrove is a slow and reasoned testament to the plight of the Jamaican people in London and gives light to the struggle for people of color in Great Britain.  Fannie Lou Hamer said it best when she said “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”  It’s a shame that this film is being promoted as a television movie because it could have been worthy of Oscar consideration.

Grade:  B