A rather different Opening Night experience at the London Film Festival this year. Rather than tripping up the red carpet to the Odeon Leicester Square in all our finery, we watched the opening film in our living room via the BFI's festival screening website. Perhaps this is fitting as this year's opener is Steve McQueen's MANGROVE, part of a five part series of films to be shown on the BBC in November celebrating Black British History.
The film's title is taken from a small West Indian cafe in Notting Hill in the 1960s that served as a kind of unofficial community hub for the immigrants who had come over as part of the Windrush generation. It might be hard for kids now to realise that Notting Hill then was a poor part of North Kensington, full of immigrants trying to take their place in British society despite endemic racism. They were brutalised by an institutionally racist Metropolitan police, and further brutalised and isolated by urban planning. The Mangrove was continually raided and broken up for no good - or at least lawful - reason. And it's no accident that the Westway was built to carve up the community with a massive impregnable physical obstacle - leaving Notting Hill to be gentrified to the East, and Shepherd's Bush to rot in the West. Even the constituency was reshaped in 1970 to break-up a potentially powerful voting block.
That year - 1970 - is no accident. It was also the year of the trial of the Mangrove Nine. Naturally, as someone who received the finest education England has to over, I had no idea this trial had taken place! And so this film serves as a powerful educational piece beyond its role as mere entertainment.
The first half of the film shows anger building in the West Indian community at the continual harassment of the police. Black men are beaten brutally, their mothers are spoken down to - coppers arrest black men on the whim of a card game. And yet - and yet - there is joy and community and fun to be had at the Mangrove. The roti is good! The music is good! And there might even be some under the table gambling and rum. The cafe owner, Frank Crichlow, certainly doesn't think of himself as a community leader, even though he has become one by default. He's just there to create a safe space for his people.
The centre of the film is a peaceful protest organised by local activists such as the lawyer Darcus Howe, and the Black Panther Altheia Jones-Lecointe. As the protestors meet intransigent police, they are beaten and selectively pulled out and arrested. Most absurdly, the nine are charged with Riot and Affray - a new charge so serious they are tried in the Old Bailey.
The second half of the film is thus the trial of the Mangrove Nine. We see them as differently motivated. Frank's ambivalence is clear. He even considers taking a plea deal. Others are angry and want to express that anger clearly and violently even at the cost of their own defense. Howe and Jones-Lecointe are the most educated and articulate and so represent themselves. They are the most clear-sighted about Frank and the Mangrove's role in the community, and the significance of the trial. They are invested in this as a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle.
One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the contrast between the sepia-toned warmth and informality of the Mangrove, where all are welcome, and Aunt Betty is always sitting on a stool with a song on her lips - and the austerity of the Old Bailey. The topography of the courtroom is extreme - with the viewing gallery absurdly high and removed from the action, the judge once again boxed in and high, the mere lawyers low and supplicant. It's a building and a courtroom designed to impose, to give gravitas to those in power, and make sure those in the dock know their place.
As a result, its British justice that's on trial - from the ability of Darcus and Altheia to enter the Bailey with the dignity of lawyers - to the ability to select a jury of ones peers - to the ability to leave the dock without being manhandled and confined. What I really liked was that - despite a superbly funny ally in one of the white barristers - this is not a film about white allies. It's Darcus' superb cross-examination of the prosecution's key witness - a Met police officer - that wins their case. Although a genuinely decent closing direction from the Judge to ignore the colour of a uniform or of a witnesses skin, no doubt helped too.
There are several genuinely moving passages in this film. The first - moving me to tears - was am impassioned speech by Jones-Lecointe about how she is doing this for her unborn child. But the second was the a long held close-up on Crichlow as he hears the verdict. In a sense, this has been his film and his journey - from businessman to activist. He has come to terms with what the Mangrove means to his community, and the responsibility that comes with that.
Of course, nothing changes really. The harassment continues and black people continue to face prejudice. But there is some small comfort in the fact this history is finally being brought to our screens by our most talented of film-makers, and in a format where everyone will be able to see it. But it does make me sad not to have experienced it on the big screen. I can only begin to imagine how powerful McQueen's extreme close-ups must have been in that format.
Special kudos to all involved in recreating 1960s Notting Hill - the street-scapes, clothes, music, cars, processed film that gave it a certain colour-scape and texture - all worked superbly well. And kudos too, to the cast. Letitia Wright deserves special mention as Jones-Lecointe, as does Malachi Kirby as Howe. But it's Shaun Parkes as Frank who really takes us deep into the heart of this spectacular film.
MANGROVE played the New York and London Film Festivals 2020. It will be shown on TV in November. It has a running time of 126 minutes.