‘A Captivating Courtroom Drama’
Peaceful black protestors beaten up by police in a riot. Do these news headlines ring a bell?
Audiences that closely follow latest U.S. news may recognize these headlines from the Black Lives Matter Movement. Systemic racism has long been associated with America. However, few audiences are aware of its significance in British History. In 1971 West London, 9 African-American activists were accused of initiating violence against the police. The trial that followed became the first public acknowledgement of police racism in Britain. Given its similarities with present-day U.S., the legal trial deserves the cinematic treatment. It’s surprising, then, that this historical event has never been depicted on the big-screen.
Now, Steve McQueen dramatizes the scandalous trial for the first time in his latest film “Mangrove”. An informative, heartfelt and timely courtroom drama, it offers an eye-opening look at a little-known incident in British History. With the first feature in his “Small Axe” anthology series, writer/director Steve McQueen investigates institutional racism in U.K. history with clear-eyed compassion and sensitivity. Packed with spellbinding production values, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is one of the year’s best movies. Although “Mangrove” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from an unevenly paced first-half that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it provides enlightening entertainment that will satisfy fans of historical dramas.
Set in 1971 West London, “Mangrove” recounts the true story of the Mangrove 9 trial. Shaun Parkes stars in the leading role as Frank Crichlow, a black restaurant owner that experiences police harassment. Following unjustified police raids, Frank decides to take a stand and organize a demonstration with support from his community. However, what starts out as a peaceful protest soon turns into a violent confrontation with police. As the protestors are prosecuted, they conspire to confront the prejudiced judicial system.
Writer/director Steve McQueen is familiar with themes of racial prejudice. His 2013 Oscar-winning biopic “12 Years a Slave” offered a harrowing look at the personal experiences of a runaway slave in the 1800’s. “Mangrove”, however, marks his first docudrama and foray into the forgotten history of the West Indian Community. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to recreate a controversial courtroom trial on the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using spellbinding cinematography, McQueen draws viewers into the lives of African-American protestors that confront racism in 1970’s London. From intimate close-ups to anxiety-inducing long shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, McQueen creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the horrors of racism. McQueen excels at recreating the turbulent trial, and his latest feature is worth watching on Amazon Prime for this reason alone.
If stories of fact-based trials do not pique your interest, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Mangrove”. McQueen exhibits exceptional control over the long takes, production sets and musical score, showcasing his strengths as a filmmaker. McQueen has always been an expert at employing extended long takes in his films, and “Mangrove” is no exception. McQueen’s decision to shoot the courtroom sequences using long takes is risky, but it works immensely. Assisted by production-designer Helen Scott, McQueen effectively employs long takes to convey the psychological toll inflicted by racism. For instance, in one heartbreaking scene the camera simply lingers on Frank’s face as he reacts to the trial outcome. Using this cinematic technique, McQueen forms a strong emotional connection between the viewers and characters. Moreover, the musical score is also worth praising. Mica Levi’s reggae score is highly effective. It gives the film a joyous and energetic atmosphere. Through dazzling production values, McQueen keeps viewers invested in the tempestuous legal proceedings.
Another admirable aspect of “Mangrove” is the screenplay. McQueen’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to avoid stereotypical depictions of African-Americans. In Hollywood, most courtroom dramas are driven by stereotypes and rely heavily on exaggerated caricatures to get their message across. African-American individuals are often portrayed as helpless victims that are constantly pitied and not able to overcome societal oppression. To illustrate this point, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a recent courtroom drama that misrepresented African-Americans as victims of the U.S. government. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Mangrove”. Unlike other movies in the genre, the film does not rely on stereotypes. Instead, McQueen asserts that black individuals aren’t powerless and shouldn’t be treated as such. This message is captured through Frank’s transformation as he goes from enduring police harassment to standing up against injustice. It’s an empowering portrayal of the black experience that marks a notable departure from Hollywood’s negative treatment of the subject. Using an unconventional screenplay, McQueen keeps viewers engrossed in the experiences of marginalized West Indian communities.
It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. In an award-worthy ensemble, every star gets their opportunity to shine.
Shaun Parkes delivers a star-making performance as Frank Crichlow. In his first ever leading role, Parkes proves to be a fantastic actor with a flair for playing famous community activists. It is not easy to portray a real-life restaurant owner that endured police harassment in 1970’s Britain. It’s a challenging role that requires the actor to convey strong emotions with minimal dialogue. However, Parkes pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the anger, courage and resentment of a black restaurant owner that stands up against the U.K. legal system. It’s a phenomenal performance that proves the British actor has a bright future in Hollywood.
The supporting cast is spectacular and also worthy of recognition. Letitia Wright is remarkable and commands every scene she is in as the passionate community activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe. Malachi Kirby is marvelous and showcases a knack for delivering inspirational speeches to protesters as Darcus Howe. And finally, it is hard to not mention Sam Spruell. As the racist police-officer Frank Pulley, he brings palpable tension to the movie.
Despite its extraordinary performances, however, “Mangrove” isn’t nearly the masterpiece that critics proclaim it to be. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from an uneven pace. McQueen’s decision to focus on establishing the setting/characters during the first hour of the film is bold and innovative. However, it affects the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this approach, the restaurant sequences in the first-half aren’t as engaging as the courtroom climax of the second-half. Furthermore, the movie’s themes may not please everyone. The film covers controversial topics such as police brutality, racism and government corruption that may upset certain viewers. In light of its disturbing themes, “Mangrove” may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.
Nevertheless, fans of historical dramas will definitely enjoy “Mangrove” and so will movie-goers seeking educational entertainment. A masterful piece of filmmaking, it sheds light on an important incident in British History. In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter Movement, it’s a timely reminder of the never-ending wars against injustice that African-Americans continue to fight around the world today.