NYFF 2020: “Mangrove” is a rousing celebration of black solidarity

A review by Andrew Kendall for The Stabroek News.

It speaks to the ever-increasingly blurred lines between television and cinema that one of the most vibrant pieces of filmmaking out of the fall festival season has been the entries from Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology premiering over the course of the New York Film Festival this year. After the rhythmic and laidback “Lovers Rock” opened the festival, another entry, “Mangrove”, the second of three of the films which will premiere at the festival and the opening episode of the five-part anthology series, has been screened.

Like the rest of the films in the anthology, it is a celebration of West Indian culture in London, and represents a vibrant and necessary celebration of blackness on screen. Where “Lovers Rock” approached blackness on screen in a time of celebratory joy, “Mangrove” is a two-hour film tracking a legal, and philosophical, battle for the existence of blackness in white spaces.

The eponymous “Mangrove” of the title is a café in Notting Hill, London. The Trinidadian-born owner, Frank Critchlow, opens the café as a safe haven for West Indian migrants in the London area in the late 1960s. As the café grows, it becomes a harbour for the black movement in Britain. And with that carving out of a place of blackness, it becomes victim of a steady stream of police intervention, putting the business, and its patrons at risk. The resulting clash, between police and civilians, climaxes in a trial where nine black activists are charged with inciting riots in 1970.

What starts off as a casual observatory drama builds steadily into a legal drama with a clear, emphatic social justice through-line and McQueen uses the familiar tropes of courtroom dramas on screen to build tension as “Mangrove” develops. The crisis at hand is not just a run-of-the-mill legal case of crime, though. The trial comes to take on metatextual significance as it becomes a direct interrogation of the ways that blackness becomes a liability in white spaces. With “Mangrove,” McQueen gives voice to the tenor of the 1970s era struggle for black liberation, a struggle that resonates half a century later.

The early moments in “Mangrove” demonstrate McQueen’s efficiency at creating a distinct atmosphere. As a piece of filmmaking, the anthology takes on anthropological significance as it brings to the screen a detailed replica of Caribbean culture. The world-building in the film authentically replicates the energetic sense of place that marks the excitement of the West Indian community’s yearning for identity in London. Early scenes play particularly well for those with knowledge of the mid-century context of West Indians in Britain, with CLR James and the nuances of the movement earning key mentions. Amidst the focused activism in the community, Frank is a much more ambivalent character, worried about how explicit activism might affect the longevity of his business McQueen’s script (cowritten with Alastair Siddons) sharply identifies the parameters of the different kinds of black struggle. From Frank’s more business-oriented concerns, to the more revolutionary style of activist Barbara Beese and husband Darcus Howe and the middle ground represented by activist Altheia Jones-LaCointe.

Guyanese-born Letitia Wright is given the role of her career thus far as Jones-LaCointe, in a performance – that like the film around it – builds to an impactful crescendo. Jones-LaCointe is one of the central activists of the nine who encourage Frank to use the space of the Mangrove as a heterotopia for blackness in an unwelcoming Britain. Early scenes establish Wright’s Altheia as an activist with a clear-eyed intensity. Her smallness seems to cut against our expectations of the role (she is 5’5 and 26) but as “Mangrove” grows more complicated, her performance deepens, becoming the linchpin of the drama in the second half. McQueen saves her strongest moments for a scene near the end that feels like the foundation for the entire “Small Axe” series. It’s the rare scene where the film directly speaks to the moment, articulating the burden of the Mangrove Nine. In another film, it might feel too literal but the moment feels both rejuvenating and devastating. One of the script’s many impactful lines cuts to the quick of the film’s struggle. “Is all man for dem selves,” a disgruntled member of the group bemoans as they realise the difficulty of defending themselves in an unjust system. Frank’s concise response feels critical, “Aye, is dem and is we.” The phrase sums up so eloquently the frisson of the struggle – the black movement depends on solidarity, even as the film doesn’t privilege any one approach.

This kind of social-justice film is familiar, but “Mangrove” is not just preaching its message – it is informing its ideals with sharp, and clear filmmaking. If “Mangrove” lacks the artistic finesse of “Lovers Rock” laidback and bluesy charm, it benefits from a focused through-line that overwhelms. Near the end, the camera zeroes in on a restless Frank, who is played by Shaun Parkes. As he listens to a member of the court speaking, the camera stays on him as his emotions slowly begin to overwhelm his body and the screen. In that moment it is hard not to feel similarly overwhelmed by the display on screen. It’s a moment that epitomises McQueen’s tendency to let the emotions do the work in the film, rather than telegraphing how we should feel. McQueen recognises that in a film with such clearly articulated social implications, the characters can speak for themselves. So, a mid-film conversation between Wright and an excellent Rochenda Sandall (as Barbara) briefly, but sharply, speaks to the struggle of women in the movement. In a later scene a rewriting of Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint” soliloquy feels like an incisive bit of intertextuality.

“Mangrove” will hit hard for audiences in the Caribbean, and Caribbean audiences in the diaspora. Its value as a piece of filmmaking is assured for everyone – this is sharp, clear-eyed and riveting filmmaking. The film’s celebration of West Indian solidarity in glorious colour on the screen feels revolutionary and vibrant and wholly necessary. As the Caribbean’s film industry slowly catches up with the rest of the world, it is still rare for Caribbean culture to be represented with this budget on screen – big or small. Within that larger cultural framework “Mangrove” feels like a glorious celebration of something too often ignored. As the first episode of “Small Axe” it is a vibrant opening to the anthology. Whether it is television, or cinema, it is an essential piece of 2020 filmmaking.

“Mangrove” is the first of a five-episode anthology series of films by Steve McQueen that will premiere for audiences on November 20.

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