The dramatic story of the Mangrove Nine, when a group of Black British activists fought back against racist police raids in a tense series of courtroom showdowns, practically pitched itself as a movie when it unfolded in 1970. (They were acquitted of most charges, but the raids didn’t stop.) It only took 50 years, but writer-director Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” works overtime to fill the gap, resulting in a delectable crowdpleaser both specific to its moment and relevant today.
Produced as part of the filmmaker’s ambitious five-film “Small Axe” anthology about Black British Londoners across several decades, “Mangrove” is a taut and thrilling judicial drama that transcends the genre even while acknowledging its barriers. Just as he used the heist genre as a Trojan horse for sociopolitical concerns, McQueen turns the courtroom formula inside out. In following the trial, “Mangrove” delves into the usual assemblage of passionate monologues about equal rights and dedication to the cause. But it’s also grounded in a detailed ecosystem so rich with the sentiments of the moment that it eventually makes an old routine feel new.
McQueen excels at building immersive environments and positioning conflicted people within their confines, with backdrops that pulsate with life. In “Mangrove,” the atmosphere is so palpable you can smell it, but that might just be the kitchen: The title refers to the West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill run by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a stoic Trinidadian immigrant whose spicy cuisine provided a sanctuary for London’s evolving community of artists and intellectuals at the time. Keen on remaining apolitical until he’s left no choice, Crichlow provides the ideal centerpiece for a movie steeped in an age-old conflict between the safest option and the right one. “This is a restaurant, not a battleground,” he says at one point. The movie tracks his growing awareness that it’s obviously both.
Faced with relentless police raids on non-existent charges led by the heinous officer Frank Pulley (a slimy Sam Spurrell), Crichlow eventually joins forces with Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright, more subdued than Shuri in “Black Panther” but certainly complimenting that role) and others to organize a protest march — a feat that inevitably erupts into violence as the police lash out.
In an ensuing 11-week trial, the Mangrove Nine — which also included broadcaster Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), and his partner Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) — fought back against baseless charges that they had incited the violence. Two of the defendants, Jones-LeCointe and Howe, chose to defend themselves; the others relied on a white attorney, Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden). The resulting trial received a lot of press at the time, but McQueen ignores that side of the spectacle to play up the stakes within the courtroom, from the efforts to land an all-Black jury (denied) to the lively interrogation sessions driven by the defendants themselves (remarkably effective). When “Mangrove” arrives at the trial, it settles into familiar proceedings, with Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) glaring down on the defendants as if they’ve already lost, Crichlow fretting over whether a guilty plea might salvage his odds, and the debates growing more heated as the drama presses on.
But McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay with his key “Small Axe” collaborator Alastair Hiddons, doesn’t rush into all of that. The first act of “Mangrove” is suffused with the textures of its setting, from the vibrant clientele of the restaurant to the jubilant street parties that take place outside. It’s here that the movie bears its closest resemblance to “Lovers Rock” (the first “Small Axe” entry to premiere on the festival circuit, though “Mangrove” will be broadcast first) by showing how communal bonds woven into the fabric of everyday life have the power to catalyze more precise acts of solidarity.
Enhancing the precise nature of the milieu, the reggae soundtrack takes on the connotations of a Greek chorus (when Toots and the Maytals’ “54-46 Was My Number” plays, it’s hard to ignore the resonance of lyrics like “I’m not a fool to hurt myself/So I was innocent of what they done to me”). Also notable: When Barbara Beese resists her white lawyer’s legal strategy, she says, “I’m not interested in playing silly games,” which plays like a direct reference to the seismic “Silly Games” musical number in “Lovers Rock.” It’s the kind of intriguing cultural Easter egg that suggests McQueen is building out a world of references united by a common purpose.
Still, Crichlow doesn’t start out looking to shake up the establishment. Parkes delivers a riveting performance simmering with anger and frustration as the character attempts to arouse support from local politicians and white legal advisors, until it becomes clear that the system has been stacked against him. “Your strategy of relying on the white establishment will never work,” Howe tells him. Jones-LeCointe puts it in blunter terms. “We can’t be the victims. We have to be the protagonists,” she says. “It’s them and we.”
Her point is well taken. From the harrowing raids to the breathless strategy sessions that surround the trial, the Mangrove Nine push back on persecution from every direction, and Frank’s subtle expressions track his evolving assessment of the situation at hand. McQueen manages to turn the usually static backdrop of the courtroom into a visually dynamic environment, with roving camerawork and ample closeups that encapsulate the real-time pressures as they unfold. It’s so well-handled, in fact, that it exacerbates some of the more clichéd aspects of the script, including a few stagey monologues marred by self-awareness and characters so aware of the history they’re participating in that they call it out as such. But the proceedings grow more and more involving as the suspense builds, and by the time Kirby delivers the remarkable closing statement, his observation that the root of their problem lies “somewhere in the stench of British colonialism” cuts deep. As the verdict is read, the camera sits with mounting intensity on Crichlow’s face, resulting in what might be the best approach to this familiar movie moment since Sidney Lumet’s crane shot swooped down on Paul Newman in “The Verdict.”
Through sheer serendipity (although it might also be something in the air), “Mangrove” has found its way into the world at the same time that Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” makes the rounds of the fall season. Both movies restage major historical court cases while showing how much they resonate today. However, they showcase two very different kind of conundrums — a fight for beliefs on one side, and basic human rights on the other. The Chicago Seven encapsulated the iconoclastic nature of their moment, and Sorkin’s movie delves into the center of that representational power, but “Mangrove” operates on more intimate terms that make it the more affecting of the two: The Mangrove Nine weren’t looking for trouble until it found them. And while they mostly found the justice they were looking for, McQueen makes it clear that Crichlow’s battle didn’t end with one victory. That seems to be the guiding principle of the “Small Axe” project as a whole, with the filmmaker etching out an untold history (at least, untold on this scale) one substantial chapter at a time. Considered on its own terms, “Mangrove” is first-rate filmmaking even when it falls into a tried-and-true recipe. But the bigger picture — the sense of purpose percolating beneath each scene — amounts to a cinematic seance with a long-neglected past. Bring on the next chapter.
“Mangrove” premiered in the Main Slate at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It streams on Amazon as part of the “Small Axe” anthology on November 20.