Mangrove (part 1 of Small Axe)

Last night, we watched Mangrove, the first of a series of small films about the Afro Caribbean experience in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. The films are directed and co-written by Oscar winning director Steve McQueen, and listed as a group under the name Small Axe.

The Mangrove was a restaurant / social club opened in London by a black Trinidadian in the late 1960s. It was designed a place where Caribbean immigrants could gather and eat the food of their home countries, but it quickly became a place for political gatherings, including members of the British Black Panthers (I didn’t even know they were a thing). The place was regularly raided by racist British police.

Eventually activists organized a protest demonstration, in August 1970, which was intended to be peaceful but soon devolved into scuffles between demonstrators and police. The police arrested a bunch of demonstrators, and the trial of the Mangrove 9, as they became known, led to the first official recognition that there might be widespread racism in the British police force.

In a welcome surprise, the movie tells the story straight, without “dramatizations” to make the characters more or less sympathetic. The character of Officer Pulley, the instigator of the racially motivated raids, comes off as a bit of a caricature, but the others involved are shown in all their complexity. Apparently McQueen’s father was a friend of one of the defendants so he wanted to get it right.

Two of the defendants (including one woman) acted as their own attorneys and delivered some pretty powerful speeches.

The movie, at a little over two hours, is deliberately paced, but not slow. The director lingers over a few scenes longer than we’re used to, in these days of Hollywood quick cuts. But that’s all to the good – with a bit of extra time, the importance of those scenes sinks in.

Well worth your time.

On Amazon Prime. It may be listed under the name Small Axe, which is the name of the entire group of films.

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