By Alex McPherson

“Mangrove,” the first installment of director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series, is harrowing, inspirational, and relevant to our modern social climate.

McQueen’s film focuses on the events leading up to and including the 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine in London. Entrepreneur and Trinidaddian immigrant Frank Crichlow (portrayed by Shaun Parkes with emotional nuance) opens a business in Notting Hill called the Mangrove, intent on providing good food and better vibes without attracting unwanted attention. The restaurant soon becomes a popular community hub, especially for West Indian individuals.

Unfortunately, the local Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) harasses both Crichlow and other people of color with malevolent glee — ordering several destructive raids on the Mangrove in the process. Played with blood-boiling effectiveness by Spruell, PC Pulley firmly believes in the subordination of Black people, attacking a location where many find comfort and respite.

 Before long, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (powerfully portrayed by Letitia Wright), a founder of the British Black Panther Movement, as well as activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), help persuade Crichlow to protest against police brutality at the Mangrove. Their attempted peaceful demonstration is turned violent by the police. Facing serious charges, the film then becomes an intense, nail-biting courtroom drama, as the Mangrove Nine confront injustice and police brutality in the face of monumental obstacles and risks to their personal safety. 

“Mangrove” is visceral, empathetic, and deeply moving — showcasing the fraught yet essential nature of activism within a systemically oppressive world. The film also remains both empowering and sobering in light of the continued fight for social justice in 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, the film captures a wide emotional spectrum — joy, hatred, anguish, defiance, hope, and perseverance — and depicts a story of determined individuals ever-so-slightly chipping away at the institutional racism that has dominated human society for so long and continues to do so. 

“Mangrove” contains numerous upsetting, sobering moments, but McQueen’s film doesn’t exploit its subjects for dramatic purposes. Rather, McQueen sets the scene perfectly — helping us understand what’s at stake, appreciate the challenges faced by the Mangrove Nine, and understand the comforting essence of the Mangrove itself through immersive filmmaking techniques and lived-in characterizations. 

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner isn’t afraid to linger on images (a kitchen pan rolling back and forth along the floor after a raid; a silhouette of Altheia giving an impassioned speech with her fist raised) to lend them additional impact. Similarly, the script doesn’t brush over the characters’ contradictions and inner struggles — spotlighting Frank, Aletheia, Barbara, and Darcus for the heroes they are without rendering them one-dimensional.  

Crichlow, for example, is trying to start fresh after previous run-ins with the police at his former establishment. He is weathered and fatigued, extremely reluctant to fill the activist role he’s pressured to adopt. His mindset contrasts with Aletheia’s, who stands firm in her efforts to protest and to not surrender to larger forces. This leads to several fascinating, suspenseful interactions as the film progresses, as Crichlow weighs the benefits of giving in against the symbolic weight of the Trial for British society at large.

When the film reaches the courtroom — represented as a foreboding, larger-than-life presence — “Mangrove” doesn’t feel as manipulative or crowd-pleasing as something like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” There’s no White Savior here, thank god, only intelligent, brave individuals confronting the very real forces of evil seeking to silence them. 

A couple of defendants — Altheia and Darcus — actually served as their own counsel in the proceedings, subverting the system to make stark condemnations of it and refusing to let others control their fate. Darcus in particular, portrayed with fervor by Kirby, gives a nuanced, impassioned speech that speaks to humanity’s long past of prejudice and the need to overcome it today. 

By its conclusion, McQueen encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how much we haven’t progressed, in terms of social justice. Even though efforts might seem fruitless, “Mangrove” reasserts that the fight must continue.

“Mangrove” is part of director Steve McQueen’s television mini-series, “Small Axe,” on Amazon Prime. Alex’s Rating: A+