‘Small Axe’: Shaun Parkes on Playing a Reluctant Revolutionary in ‘Mangrove’

The actor reflects on the role of Frank Crichlow, owner of the titular Mangrove restaurant, once a safe haven for Black British activists.
Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow in "Mangrove"
Des Willie/Amazon Prime Video

The case of the Mangrove Nine — named after the once-popular eatery in London’s Notting Hill district that became a nucleus for the Black British community — was a landmark decision in England’s judicial history. It’s the story that kicks off director Steve McQueen’s latest venture: five feature films, collectively titled “Small Axe,” that dig into the experiences of London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s and is airing on Amazon Prime Video. The first film of the series, “Mangrove,” stars Shaun Parkes as Mangrove restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, the reluctant, accidental leader of a revolution.

“He just wanted to do what he wanted to do, like so many people who come to another country because of dreams of a better life,” Parkes said. “But what they’re met with is something quite different. And then they just have to deal with it. But when you have this conviction of, ‘I am a human being’, there’s not much that’s going to dissuade you. If you’ve got people banging on your door, if you have the police coming and making life difficult, you have governments making life difficult, it’s whether you bend or break. We see Frank as a hero. I’m sure he would have seen himself as just a human being who believed his life had meaning.”

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Crichlow arrived in Britain in June 1953, five years after the Empire Windrush ship brought the first large group of Caribbean migrants to the U.K. after the second World War. By 1968, Notting Hill had become England’s Black culture capital, and that’s where Crichlow decided to open the Mangrove.

But his aspirations were antithetical to the mindset of the racist local police of the time, who repeatedly raided the Mangrove, sparking community outrage and numerous court trials. In the 1960s and 1970s, the story became a microcosm of broader racial issues that intertwined with the civil rights movement in the U.S.

The film recreates the Mangrove with much love and care, and ultimately, it’s depicted as a safe haven for London’s Caribbean community. Parkes recalled patronizing the restaurant when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the very early 1990s. (The Mangrove closed for good in 1992.)

“I only heard about Frank Crichlow when Lenora Crichlow told me her dad’s story about 12 years ago,” he said. The Mangrove Nine isn’t a topic that is taught in schools in England. “She told me, ‘I’m Frank’s daughter.’ And then she said ‘the Mangrove, the activists, the Black Panthers. That was my dad, Frank.’ And I said, ‘I know the Mangrove, but I did not know that history.’ And so she told me the whole story, and I remember thinking, ‘This is what this country needs. We need to tell this story.’ And they won, to our shock and amazement, [and] justice was actually done. And lo and behold, 12 years later, here we are telling it.”

When Parkes said “they won,” he’s referring to all Mangrove Nine defendants being cleared by a mostly white jury of the main charge of inciting a riot — after a trial lasting 55 days.

The sense in the U.K. is that McQueen’s “Small Axe” represents a landmark event for Black British television, cinema and actors. “The thing we admire about the U.S. is Black Americans have at least seen some of their history on TV and film,” Parkes said. “Here in the U.K., we’ve seen the Black American experience explored in a variety of ways. But I definitely know that Americans, Black or otherwise, couldn’t say the same about the Black British experience.”

He hopes McQueen’s “Small Axe” series educates and inspires conversation around Black British history, as it already has in the U.K. It’s unlike anything previously produced on the Black British experience, based on contentious true stories, told very candidly, and tackling subject matter that has been mostly swept under the proverbial rug.

“In England, this subject matter has been talked about without much emotion or anger,” Parkes said. “But now the films have actually thrown up some really good debates. It’s the tears that people have rung me up with. There’s a line that comes up as the credits are rolling as to what Frank’s character had to go through for another 18 years. And that really gets people in ways that are not necessarily political, but heartfelt. And I prefer to work on the heartfelt level as opposed to the talky, political level.”

In the end credits of “Mangrove,” it’s revealed that the restaurant and Crichlow continued to be harassed by police over the ensuing two decades following the initial trial. He was eventually awarded a £50,000 settlement from the Metropolitan police, after being acquitted multiple times. He pressed for an apology but never received one. He died in 2010 at the age of 78.

Now the film based on that provocative, real-life story plays out against the backdrop of racial justice uprisings around the world, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and a global pandemic that — at least in the U.S.A. — has predominantly affected Black people. But Parkes isn’t shocked that it feels so timely, even if accidentally so.

“That’s where you have to say, God must be involved, that something divine is happening here,” he said. “We filmed this a year ago, and you have to really think deeply about what the mindset was in 2019 before all this. It was the end days and we didn’t know it. No masks on set. No COVID tests. No quarantines. We were just making a film that we knew was going to be great. But no one saw this year coming.”

The pandemic and racial justice protests aside, for Parkes, given the emotionality of the part and discovering his own history and the history of his forebears for the first time, playing Frank Crichlow was itself a somewhat traumatic experience. But the importance of telling this particular story was motivation enough to get up and go to work every morning.

“I have to admit to having to wipe away a few tears at the end of each day,” he said. “Because you’ve got to kind of get yourself ready for the next day. You can’t dwell on the fact that you just did that emotional scene eight times and it drained you. You just got to walk forward. But, I have to say, it’s a role that you love playing, and that you’re quite happy not to have to get into that mindset once it’s over.”

In his review, IndieWire’s chief film critic Eric Kohn called “Mangrove” a “delectable crowdpleaser both specific to its moment and relevant today.”

“Small Axe” kicked off on November 20, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

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