Malachi Kirby: the Mangrove star on going from EastEnders to Hollywood

A report by Clive David for The Times of London.

The Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen likes to take his actors to extremes. An emaciated Michael Fassbender played Bobby Sands in McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, and quite literally exposed himself playing a sex addict in Shame. The cast of 12 Years a Slave, among them Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, committed to several gruellingly prolonged depictions of horrific cruelty.

The actor Malachi Kirby, who grew up on a council estate in Battersea, south London, and who beat countless rivals to win the plum role in the remake of that landmark American TV series Roots, is McQueen’s newest muse. Kirby is the star of Mangrove, the director’s new film about politics and policing in Notting Hill, the first instalment in McQueen’s acclaimed five-part cycle, Small Axe, which starts on BBC One next Sunday.

Sitting in an office at The Times, the 31-year-old recalls how McQueen, a political film-maker through and through, put him through his paces at his three auditions for the role of Darcus Howe, the radical who was at the centre of a campaign that ended in the high-profile criminal trial of the so-called Mangrove Nine in 1970.

Kirby in Mangrove

Kirby in Mangrove

For an actor who admits that his interest in politics is far from all-consuming, it was a rapid education. “One of the first things Steve said to me was ‘Grenfell’. I thought, OK. In my mind, the film had nothing to do with Grenfell, but then I realised, ‘Oh it does, because it was happening in the same area.’ Steve was asking me things like, ‘Where were you when it was happening? How did it affect you?’ It was a very quick way of learning how he works, about being aware of something outside of yourself. I love that about him.”

The film may occasionally be didactic — its portrayal of police-community relations is cartoonish at times — but Kirby is never less than hypnotic. For anyone who remembers Howe — who died in 2017, aged 74 — as the steely-eyed elder statesman of black activism, it is startling to see him as a self-conscious twentysomething who tries to balance politicking with domestic duties.

McQueen packs in a lot of detail. There are radical-chic references to the home-grown counterparts of those urban revolutionaries, the Black Panthers. Kirby, meanwhile, captures Howe’s poetic Caribbean speech patterns, conjuring up grandiose, fist-clenched visions of revolution and people power.

The case of the Mangrove Nine — who took their name from the restaurant that became a meeting place for intellectuals and Black Power supporters — became part of the mythology of Notting Hill. The restaurant, owned by Frank Crichlow, a well-known figure in the black community, had been frequently raided by police. When protesters organised a march on the police station, violence broke out.

The trial, which dragged on for weeks, ended with the defendants being acquitted of the main charges and shone a light on racism in the Met. It helped to launch the Trinidadian-born Howe as a leading campaigner on race and policing, although subsequent generations knew him better as a combative presenter and talking head on many a Channel 4 current affairs programme.

Kirby turns up to our interview with a copy of a biography of Howe in his bag. He admits that he hadn’t even heard of the Mangrove before he signed on to the film. “I had no awareness of it at all. When I looked at the script and looked it up I thought, ‘Why don’t I know about this?’ It was exciting just to learn about it, let alone share it with people.”

In Roots

In Roots

Mangrove may be rooted in gritty reality, but the kind of stories that interest him most actually turn out to be fantasy fiction. America exerts more of a pull on him now, at least in terms of his career. There is less of that sense, he thinks, of being weighed down by assumptions about class or race. Executives, he says, are too quick to turn down ideas on the grounds that they won’t appeal to black people.

“I still feel we’re playing it safe,” he says. “For me it doesn’t make sense because the majority of the shows that I’ve related to and enjoyed didn’t have people that looked like me in them. The idea that suddenly colour [watching characters of colour in films] matters when you are black or Asian is narrow-minded. That’s not so much of a thing in the States. You see it even in popcorn films, the Marvel films and the blockbusters that are complete fantasy. That’s telling of the mindset over there.”

British viewers’ first sightings of Kirby would probably have been when he played Wayne Ladlow for eight episodes of EastEnders in 2014. The making of Kirby, though, came two years later in when he played Kunta Kinte in the remake of Roots.

Kirby had a disastrous first audition for the part of the young man transported into slavery in the New World — he has called it “the worst of my life”. Yet the intensity of his on-screen performance more than justified the producers’ faith in him. If anything, he is a more convincing presence than LeVar Burton (executive producer on the new series) was in the landmark Seventies production.

Stories abounded of Kirby insisting on undergoing hardships that were as close to reality as possible. Wearing plastic chains did not feel right to him; instead he insisted on feeling the weight of genuine metal. It’s not Method acting, he insists, more a search for the instinctive. He jokes that he “doesn’t like acting”; he simply wants to be real. It was a trait that emerged early in his career, he says, when he was playing a minor role in the BBC One series Silent Witness.

“When I looked at the script and looked it up I thought, ‘Why don’t I know about this?’ ”

“When I looked at the script and looked it up I thought, ‘Why don’t I know about this?’ ”

“My character’s name was Tic-Toc. When I got on set people were calling me Malachi. It was really distracting. So I said, ‘Please, is it OK if you call me Tic-Toc?’ It wasn’t ego — it was just that my own name took me out of character. I always used to feel more comfortable on stage than in front of cameras. Cameras were right there in my face, reminding me it was all fake. It took me a long time to get used to them and to dance with them.”

It took him a while, too, to realise that acting could offer an introvert from a poor background a route out of a council estate. He was just six when his father, a Rastafarian mechanic and welder, died in his sleep at 28. Kirby was a quiet child — so quiet, in fact, that his mother, a civil servant, sent him for speech lessons. Although he has a younger brother on his father’s side of the family, he was brought up as an only child, one who was fond of talking to his imaginary friends and teddy bear.

He went to a Catholic state school in Battersea, but theatre classes at the Battersea Arts Centre (his mother’s idea) gave him a glimpse of other possibilities and the chance to mingle with children from different backgrounds. Although acting as a career didn’t seem an immediate possibility, he was all too aware that he needed to focus on making his way in life and not succumb to the temptations of street life. He knew that much, he says, when he was only ten years old.

“I was six years old when my dad passed, but in my head I was the man of the house,” he says. I took on this sense of responsibility. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to protect Mummy.’ My mum used to say to me as well, ‘When you leave this house you represent me.’

A protest scene from Mangrove

A protest scene from Mangrove

“So, yeah, I was driven in that sense. My mum reminded me the other day of something she said — she used to say she wanted me when I grew up to have the choice of where I wanted to live. She was speaking to the sense of poverty we grew up in. She reminded me of that the other day because I’m just about to get my first house.”

He’s still wary of the demands of being a VIP. He dips into social media on Instagram, but is wary of getting sucked into sharing his private life or political views on Twitter. He had an account when he was appearing in Roots, and saw the positive side of having a broader platform. Even so, he found the cascade of stories about current events and the need to respond to comments from his followers too draining.

“There’s this thing of having almost a fashionable mindset on social media. There’s a lot of guilt thrown around if you’re not responding in a particular way. It’s quite strange, and it’s weird how it’s become the real world now. For a lot of people it’s more real than actual reality.”

As for his next career steps, he says he is devoting less time to chasing auditions and more to developing his own projects as a writer and producer. Yet his ambition is tempered by his sense of the spiritual. I ask him the standard “Are you in a relationship?” question and he replies in the affirmative. Yet it turns out that he has been single for quite some time. What he is actually talking about is religion.

“I’m in a relationship with God,” he says with a gentle, self-mocking laugh. He had been drawn to religion for many years, but it was only about six years ago that he accepted that he was a believer. As he explains, “Funnily enough, I started my journey with God when I started acting. My dad was a Rasta. My faith definitely didn’t happen suddenly.

“I was very stubborn and an over-thinker. I questioned and questioned for about six years. With every answer that I got there was another question, and I realised that I could go on for ever. I was trying to find proof, and then I decided this whole thing was ridiculous. It’s not about finding evidence — it’s faith.”

After trying different churches, he belongs to a Christian fellowship in east London. At last he has found what he is looking for. Religion, he says, is more than just a question of dogma or denomination. “There’s genuine love there, he explains. “Not a ‘Sunday in church’ love, but ‘I’m gonna call you on Monday and check how you are’ love.”
Small Axe: Mangrove 
is on BBC One on Sunday, November 15

The true stories of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series

Mangrove
Mangrove
 is an impassioned account of the trial of the so-called Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists who were prosecuted, on very shaky grounds, in 1970, for allegedly inciting a riot. The film details the campaign of intimidation and abuse, subsequently acknowledged to be racially motivated, that the Metropolitan Police waged against the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, the restaurant’s owner and the denizens therein. All nine were acquitted of the principal charge of incitement to riot, making the trial — which lasted 55 days — the first judicial acknowledgement of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the Met.
BBC One, November 15

Francis Lovehall and Ellis George in Lovers Rock

Francis Lovehall and Ellis George in Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock 
Lovers Rock
 — a fictional story of young love at a blues party in 1980 — is an ode to the romantic reggae genre lovers rock and to the black youth who discovered freedom in DJing at London house parties when they remained unwelcome at white nightclubs. The genre became popular in the late 1970s as the music increasingly drew inspiration from social protest, culminating with the Brixton Riots in 1981.
BBC One, November 22

John Boyega in Red, White and Blue

Red, White and Blue
Red, White and Blue
, starring John Boyega, is based on the true story of Leroy Logan, a young forensic scientist who decided to become a police officer after his father, Kenneth, a lorry driver, was beaten up by two police officers in 1983. Kenneth, ordered to step out from his vehicle and told that he had “failed the attitude test”, suffered two black eyes and faced charges of obstruction and resisting arrest (of which he would be found not guilty). Kenneth disapproved of his son’s new career choice. Despite the racism encountered in his role as a constable in the Metropolitan Police, Logan remained intent on changing attitudes from within.
BBC One, November 29

Alex Wheatle 
Alex Wheatle follows the life of the award-winning writer from a boy through to his early adult years. Wheatle was arrested aged 18 for assaulting a police officer, criminal damage and resisting arrest after joining the Brixton Uprising of 1981. At the time he was unemployed and living in a hostel, had no family and had spent his childhood in mostly white institutional care homes. After four months in prison, he discovered a love of books when a cell mate gave him a copy of The Black Jacobins by CLR James, an account of the Haitian revolution. Wheatle was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.
BBC One, December 6

Education 
Inspired by real events, Education tells the story of 12-year-old Kingsley. Fascinated by astronauts, rockets and all things science, he is sent to the head teacher’s office for supposedly being disruptive in class. The drama argues that there is an unofficial segregation policy that prevents him from having the education he deserves because he’s black. The boy is sent to a school for those with “special needs”. A group of West Indian women, however, take matters into their own hands and work to bring equality to the education system.
BBC One, December 13

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