Mangrove (Small Axe) (Review)

Towards the end of Mangrove, during the court case which occupies the second half of the film, a character proclaims that the history books will talk of this. It is a line that stings, and one that feels purposeful. The man speaks from 1970, but is depicted in 2020 as part of a five film project focusing on Black stories and suppressed histories. The fact that Mangrove exists, and is so powerful, shows that the speaker was right in sentiment: this is a moment for the history books. The fact that Mangrove has to exist is testament to the fact that history was not written by the victors, it has instead been, for too long. edited and compiled by the oppressors.

But before the court case and the clear displays of injustice, Mangrove wants to show us life and vibrancy. Unsurprisingly, coming from Steve McQueen, Mangrove is an exceptionally made film. It begins with depicting the Black community of Notting Hill at the time, and it does so with flair and infectious energy. At every point the camera is in the perfect place, shots stitched together with a fluency that evokes spontaneity and precision. The editing is brilliant, the production design excellent and the cinematography feels cinematic while also real. The camera moves dextrously and fluidly, but always feels purposeful.

The quality of the filmmaking is consistent throughout, but the mood of celebration and happiness only lasts so long. A great strength of the film, though, is how scenes shift on a dime, how celebration suddenly becomes oppression. There is no lingering sense of fear or dramatic inevitability, there is life and happiness and then the police burst in. The tone distorts and fear erupts. It is random, shocking and purposeful. No context is given because there is no context; here, random, targeted prejudice is shown as just that.

But throughout the film, McQueen keeps a spark of joy going. There is vibrancy, humanity and humour all the way through, ducking away when sincerity is needed but returning as soon as it can. This is a celebration of a group, and of a community, as well as a searing condemnation of systemic racism. Once again, though, it is the camera that does the talking. Even in the protest scene, the key moment that splits the narrative from slice-of-life into courtroom drama, the protestors and police are shot differently. McQueen puts us in the crowd, hearing the speeches – then puts us at the position of the police: locked away in a van; obscured and sinister. The protestors are humanised by the camera; the police are reduced to symbols of oppression. We focus on marching legs and imposing hats. We see seas of uniforms, a cold and clinical presentation in keeping with their actions.

Mangrove is a deeply political and insightful film. It makes smart connections to modern day struggles and feels not only deeply intentional but utterly vital. It knows about an ongoing struggle and positions itself in it, knowing just what narratives will echo forward to today and just whose stories need to be told. But this wider symbolism and metaphor is in the filmmaking. The writing is powerful but the plotting and dialogue focus on matching reality, not on evoking metaphor. There are grand speeches but they feel real, they feel of the time and not like cinematic construction. The narrative is not hyperbolised or accentuated, it is presented as is – the people speak for themselves in their own voices.

However, the filmmaking creates astonishing symbolism. As already mentioned, the camera is always in the right place. This is to the extent that every shot, even when facilitating drama, drips with symbolic potential. It’s the sloppy parking of the police car outside the courtroom before the shot pans up to institutional symbols. It’s keeping the siren on a police car – another institutional symbol – in frame while violence breaks out. It’s having a protest in a street, in a Black community and keeping, perfectly in frame behind the speech, the image of a tower block being built. For UK citizens the message here is clear regarding a history of oppression, institutional failure and the targeting of specific communities. The script stays focused on the present, on the real; the camera allows us to look towards the future, and the academic.

Mangrove is a victory as a human drama, as a gripping piece of entertainment and as a political document. It is deeply prescient and hugely important. It is accessible in that it presents such an authentic reality in such an energetic way, but at every point it invites deep reflection. It avoids simple depictions, caricature and histrionics. It is also populated by outstanding performances. There isn’t always the time, in a two hour feature, to balance character and plot and there is a lot of important plot here. Luckily, the actors are so brilliant that every role is clearly differentiated and  feels deeply human. Specific mention has to go to Letitia Wright in an awards worthy turn.

This is an important film. The story is of inherent value and the themes are hugely pertinent. But, in addition to this, it is important material done right, in which the execution takes things to even higher heights. This is a stunning opening to a promising series and an excellent film in its own right.

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