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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - MANGROVE

Mangrove review
In 1970 London, nine West Indian activists are put on trial for inciting a riot.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Jack Lowden, Jodhi May


If the remaining four films of Steve McQueen’s 'Small Axe' anthology are as good as Mangrove, we’re in for a very special collection of work to watch on BBC this winter.

The miniseries, entirely directed by McQueen and co-written by him alongside Alastair Siddons (Tomb Raider, Trespass Against Us) and novelist Courttia Newland, is a dramatisation of several true stories from London’s West Indian community during the '70s and '80s. As much as these films are about the past, they shine a light on the present too, especially one such as Mangrove, which revolves around police misconduct and the pursuit for justice.

Mangrove review

This rousing drama essays the story of the Mangrove Nine, activists who took to the streets to protest against the unwarranted police raids of their community hub, the Mangrove restaurant owned by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), who is the closest to a central character here. The restaurant is where local Caribbean immigrants, families and activists, including the British Black Panthers, seek to congregate and enjoy themselves over good food, company and music. A warm outdoors BBQ scene displays the sort of joyful community spirit at the Mangrove.


On the opposite side of Frank is another Frank, whose surname is Pulley and prefix is PC. This bitter constable is played by Sam Spruell (you know his face, he’s the guy from that thing) in a pointedly menacing turn. Pulley heads up the coppers who have a problem with Crichlow, admonishing the Mangrove boss on false charges such as selling alcohol without a license. Sometimes, it feels plain unrealistic with how obviously fraudulent the cops are in the face of the law, when summoned in court. But to think it wasn’t actually this bad would be too idealistic.

Mangrove review

The violent raid scenes occur frequently and, even when we should expect them, they’re always shocking. I would attribute the taut atmosphere to McQueen’s typically superb visual command (there’s a haunting shot of a colander rolling on the floor besides kitchen debris) and his commitment to immersing us in the milieu. You intimately understand the restaurant, right down to the specificity of the curries.


Following an exacerbation of relations, the Mangrove Nine lead a protest on the streets and eventually wind up fighting a hard trial where they’re accused of inciting a riot. The film plays like two separate films due to its structure, as it neatly situates the first and second half in the streets of Notting Hill and the courtroom, respectively. A few days removed from seeing Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, I can say that I prefer McQueen’s chronological storytelling. If McQueen chose to employ a similar style to Sorkin, he would have risked undermining his brutally factual film with the artificial twists of the courtroom drama genre.

Mangrove review

Parkes delivers one of the best performances of this sparse cinematic year, fiercely capturing the unbreakable spirit of Mr Crichlow. Letitia Wright, Rochenda Sandall and Malachi Kirby are all astonishingly good as the community’s leading activists: Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese and Darcus Howe. Jack Lowden provides some strangely warm humour as their defence barrister. The stunning amalgam of excellent performances, writing, cinematography and music (shout-out to Mica Levi) is generated by the hand of one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers. I can’t wait to see the next one.

Mangrove screens on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on November 15th.