Review: Mangrove

Written and directed by Steve McQueen, co-written by Alastair Siddons, follow the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970. The trial that followed was the first judicial acknowledgment of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Starring: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Gary Beadle, Jack Lowden, Alex Jennings, Jumayn Hunter and Sam Spruell.

The story of ‘The Mangrove Nine’ and the significance of their trial is one that hasn’t been widely told but one that is extremely worthy of being captured for the screen. Starting out all smiles and happiness with Frank Crichlow (Parkes) opening his new restaurant The Mangrove but you know that happiness is not destined to last. As PC Pulley (Spruell) arrives on the scene, you’re treated to a large dose of the systematic racism that this innocent restaurant and its patrons are subjected to and it becomes very clear where this is heading. It doesn’t hold back, it dives straight into the injustice, perhaps even slightly too quickly, it might have made for an even stronger story to establish a little more about who these nine were before they begin their fight.

It’s a fight that’s anchored by its two strongest performances from Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby, they may not be as involved in the film in its earlier stages as Shaun Parkes but when things heat up, these two intensely take the limelight. They both bring a powerful emotion and a strong presence, giving performances that capture their characters’ unending dedication to equality and justice. Kirby brings such a confidence and charisma, yes his character spends a fair amount of time rightly extremely frustrated and easily agitated but watching him in those court scenes is something special. Similarly with Wright, she comes through with such a wonderful personality right from the start, very open and friendly but as the film gets to the trial, she brings a powerhouse of emotion and her monologues are so affecting and gripping.

It’s an incredible ensemble, Parkes gives a very intense performance with a number of scenes requiring a lot of anger, hatred, fear, worry, resent and more. Sandall brings a gigantic bundle of energy, her Barbara is outspoken and relentless but she also brings a vulnerability to her, wanting to protect her family. Lowden’s character has a typically cheeky presence to him, he’s committed to helping them but he’s not displeased about pissing off the people upholding a broken system along the way. Jennings is ultimately satisfying as the presiding judge on their case, he’s entrenched in his views and watching them try to force him to open his mind is brilliant. It’s a shame that Beadle didn’t get more screen time, he’s a very grounding, natural presence to the film with a great chemistry with Parkes. Spruell as Pulley however feels too on the nose, there’s something about the way he presents this racist persona that feels overly systematic rather than resulting from an intense hatred, his performance is good of course but in these moments it feels like something is missing.

The direction is what we’ve learned to expect from Steve McQueen, he has a very induvial style that’s easy to spot, however it feels like the initial half of the film doesn’t benefit as strongly from it as the latter half. One of the things that McQueen particularly excels at is choosing his shots so carefully and precisely that they can impart a lot more meaning than you’d expect and he certainly continues that with this film. There is one shot from above the parking spaces outside of the courthouse, capturing that of the three police vehicles present, not a single one is parked within the lines and its such a perfect metaphor for the story. There are a few odd shots that feel slightly too restrictive and don’t allow you to get the bigger picture but they’re few and far between.

There’s an odd mix of timings in the film, a lot more time than necessary is spent on the time before the protest and subsequent trial, the latter is where the film really excels and the pre-protest scenes could have been much more succinct to allow for that. However, once the characters get towards that court room, the power of this story takes hold and the writing is full of raw emotion, determination, intelligence and an absolute refusal to give up. These innocent people faced stringent sentences in a system that seemed built to ensure their failure, and yet they held their ground and fought for their rights, it’s inspirational and uplifting to watch. Everything in those court scenes kicks up a notch: the pace, the dialogue, the tone and it’s intense and highly rewarding viewing.

One of the film’s issues however is that there is quite a strong attempt to put a lot of the focus on Parkes’ Frank and it doesn’t particularly pay off. It pulls the focus away from where it needs to be, though he does originate the story and is a big part of it, the focus needed to shift to the other characters as time moved on and he became more of a passenger than the driver. It results in a few moments being undercut by this slightly forced perspective which is a shame.

Mangrove tells a story that more people need to hear, it’s inspiring, intense and heartfelt. It’s full of incredible performances, Wright and Kirby give career highlight portrayals, capturing that unending dedication to equality with such charm, sincere emotion and power. It’s a prime example of widespread racism in the U.K. that’s well timed and sadly still extremely relevant despite having recently passed its 50th anniversary.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

The opening film of this year’s
London Film Festival and will be screened on BBC One in November

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