- Emma Simmonds
- 8 October 2020
LFF 2020: Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology series kicks off in blistering style
Much has been made cinematically of America's appalling record on race relations but, up until recently, it's been less common for Britain's own historical conduct to be examined, with recent efforts like Farming, Misbehaviour and White Riot attempting to set that right. The first film from Steve McQueen's made-for-television Small Axe anthology series takes us back to late 60s / early 70s London to look at the chequered past of what's become a more proudly multicultural city. Bristling with righteous anger, it's a terrifying, horrifying portrait of what it's like to live as a second-class citizen.
Beginning in 1968, it introduces us to Frank Crichlow (a superb Shaun Parkes), a British-Trinidadian and proud Black business owner who is preparing for his Notting Hill restaurant's opening night. Named the Mangrove, the establishment is a success, quickly becoming a community hub. However, violent, unjustifiable police raids – led by Sam Spruell's shamelessly racist PC Pulley – put it out of business.
This beloved local venue becomes a symbol of the harassment and oppression of Black Britons, though Frank has no personal interest in politicising his struggle – 'It's a restaurant, not a battleground,' he tells the leader of the British Black Panthers, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) when she tries to get him to add his voice to the movement.
Nevertheless, Frank is persuaded to join a demonstration, alongside prominent activists Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall). A magistrate throws out charges after the protest turns ugly but, later, nine of those involved find themselves accused of the newly created offences of 'riot' and 'affray', offences which carry lengthy prison terms, seemingly in an attempt to make an example of them.
Mangrove is quite the opener for McQueen's five-part examination of the Black British experience and it is unimprovably performed, with Parkes stunningly capturing Frank's agonising frustration, as a man who simply wants to make an honest living, and Wright conveying the fire of a woman thumping the drum for change. Kirby, too, stirs up ample outrage playing the eloquent Howe, who represents himself in court and puts Pulley wonderfully in his place.
It's all brought together brilliantly by master director McQueen, who gives us startling imagery, richly evoked Caribbean culture, and who wrings every ounce of passion and pain from the material – making us feel each moment, however uncomfortable that may be. With use of stop-and-search on the rise once again and people having to be reminded across the globe that Black lives actually matter, sadly it's a film that has as much to say about what hasn't changed as what has.
Screened on Wed 7 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Available to watch on BBC One on Fri 20 Nov.