Mangrove is absolutely the film that deserves to open this year’s London Film Festival. Steve McQueen’s latest – one of four made-for-TV films due for broadcast on the BBC later this year – is brittle, coarse and incredibly hard to watch – but it’s also hugely uplifting and has never felt more timely.
Based on the real-life events surrounding the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill in the late 60s and early 70s, the thematic focus is of course on racial aggression at the hands of the Metropolitan police – and each time a slur is uttered, or the black-owned business is trashed by the police, led by constable Pulley (Sam Spruell, spewing venom), it’s increasingly hard to stomach. It’s testament to how effectively McQueen constructs Mangrove as the hub of the black Notting Hill community, and how likeable its inhabitants are, that seeing such awful abuse of power is so harrowing.
The main rebel against the police’s relentless racism is Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a commanding lead performance which oozes charisma but also respect. He’s clearly looked up to throughout the community – even hiring lawyers to assist the younger men on knowing their legal rights when arrested – and he’s a true leader. Parkes’ performance is one of measured control but also unbridled rage in equal measure, particularly in the film’s truly fabulous second half: a tense, utterly gripping, Sorkin-esque courtroom battle that grips you and simply refuses to let go.
Every part of this second half is meticulously planned and utterly enthralling, from the snide, micro-aggressive nature of the judge (Alex Jennings) to the long takes that expertly frame the cast’s performances as they pour their heart out to the jury. Letitia Wright particularly shines here as Altheia, one of the famous ‘Mangrove Nine’ who embodies the role of a leader in the same vein as Frank, showing some superb range and proving why she’s one of cinema’s most prolific upcoming talents.
Yet best of all, it’s such an important story to be told, and it’s such a relief that a black director as prolific and celebrated as McQueen helmed this project. It’s a story many will not have heard, and this will certainly bring attention to police and judicial injustices that are sadly still just as prevalent as ever, as the past six months has gravely demonstrated. That said, McQueen is very sensitive in how he handles such incendiary real-life material: scenes of police violence, as distressing as they are, are handled with such panache as to avoid gratuity totally. It’s a remarkably controlled and sensitive way of telling the story, anchored through its characters rather than its action, which works so successfully when each individual is expertly crafted.
And with a story so necessary to hear, McQueen and co-screenwriter Alastair Siddons execute the time period and historical context brilliantly. The set design is truly perfect – this really feels like 1960s London, from the vehicle design to the signs adorning shop windows – and the beautiful soundtrack, mainly comprising of reggae and soul, stunningly sets the jovial atmosphere of the Notting Hill community.
What McQueen and co do with Mangrove is so important. They take a relatively unknown yet disturbingly timely story and turn it into one of the most gripping courtroom dramas of this century. Every performance is crafted incredibly, from Letitia Wright’s simmering anger and passion to Sam Spruell’s repugnant hatred, representing the almost insurmountable levels of institutional racism black communities have faced and continue to face. Its message is as timely as ever, and the film so deftly executes everything it aims for. A truly outstanding British film that deserves its place as the public’s introduction to London Film Festival.