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  • 4 out of 5 stars
Photograph: BBC

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Steve McQueen’s quintet of films about Black British life kicks off in gripping style

This is the first episode in director Steve McQueen’s TV series of five films about Black British life from the 1960s to ’80s. It’s co-written by McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Alastair Siddons (Trespass Against Us), and stands loudly and proudly as a movie in its own right. Urgent, angry and unsentimental, it takes us back to the late 1960s and early ’70s and a landmark flashpoint in the history of Black Britain.

Its focus is the almighty cultural, political and judicial clash that saw Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the Trinidad-born owner of Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant, a popular West Indian hangout on All Saints Road, chased to the highest level of the courts in 1970. Alongside him in the dock were eight other Black activists and thinkers, including Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). All were falsely accused of inciting a riot in west London on the back of ceaseless police harassment. The subsequent trial saw several of the Mangrove Nine – as they became known – brilliantly defending themselves, becoming spokes in the wheels of an establishment that barely knew how to react.

These are fascinating, electric personalities, and the intoxicating raw energy of Mangrove is fuelled by their intellects, imaginations, anger – as well as terrific performances from Parkes, Kirby, Wright and others. This might be history, but it’s a story that has obvious relevance today, and you can feel that urgency in the film’s spirit. This is no dusty historical tale, of mild passing interest. It’s untold history, relevant right now, finally given its due.

It begins with a party vibe as we meet Crichlow as he opens the Mangrove in 1968, and later the mood turns to nightmare and finally to one of hard-won empowerment. Its portrayal of Crichlow is especially nuanced: what Parkes gives us is a portrait of political awakening and consciousness. Crichlow is furious, frustrated, disbelieving, just wanting to get on with life. He’s a reluctant revolutionary, especially when faced with more engaged characters like Howe and Jones-LeCointe (and there are fascinating distinctions and tensions drawn within that group, too, between those attracted more to ideas or action).

It’s a story of two Englands: one emerging, one established. The film’s first half is set on the streets of Notting Hill, with visions of the half-built Westway carving its way through the area (we also see the near-completed Trellick Tower; it would be another two years before Grenfell Tower was finished a few streets away). This proud sense of place is upturned in the second half when the Old Bailey becomes our theatre, with its arcane rituals and the film’s woozy, dislocating visions of the court’s grand, celestial ceiling paintings.

Mangrove artfully swerves the hollow excitement that can come with big-screen dramas celebrating punch-the-air court victories and historical milestones. As Howe says in the dock, the end feels like the beginning, and Mangrove feels like a small fight in a big battle, with no clear start and finish. It begins and ends on the streets of Notting Hill, one chapter in the long recent history of a place and a community. It’s a masterclass in conjuring up a time and a place, and many of its ideas and arguments feel as pointed today as they did in 1970. Watch and learn.

Mangrove opens the BFI London Film Festival on Wed Oct 7. It airs on the BBC in November

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun

Cast and crew

  • Director:Steve McQueen
  • Screenwriter:Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
  • Cast:
    • Shaun Parkes
    • Letitia Wright
    • Malachi Kirby
    • Jack Lowden
    • Alex Jennings
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