‘Mangrove’ review: A restaurant’s radicalism

‘Mangrove’ review: A restaurant’s radicalism

Credit: Twitter/@DionneGrant

Mangrove: Not rated.

Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

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The opening sequence of Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” follows Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) out of a basement gambling parlor and along a few blocks of the west London neighborhood of Notting Hill to the restaurant that gives the film its name. (He’s the owner.) It’s 1968, and the streets are splashed with graffiti attacking immigrants and praising racist politician Enoch Powell. Those grim omens are balanced by vibrant street life and the buoyant sounds of “Try Me” by Bob Marley and the Wailers on the soundtrack.

But this is not just another superficial flashback to the ’60s, blending pop music and political turmoil into a thin broth of nostalgia. A brief voice-over signals a more serious intention, an approach to history that is argumentative rather than antiquarian. We are told of the existence of “new types of human beings” in whom “are to be found all the traditional virtues of the English nation, not in decay as they are in official society, but in full flower because these men have perspective.” Frank, a small-business man in a nation of shopkeepers, is one of these new people, although he might not know it yet.

The quote comes from C.L.R. James, the Trinidad-born historian, social critic and Marxist thinker who will show up briefly in “Mangrove.” James is played by Derek Griffiths as a kind of tutelary theoretical deity. The voice we hear reading his words belongs to Malachi Kirby, the actor playing Darcus Howe, who along with Crichlow and seven other Black Londoners will be accused of “riot and affray” after participating in a demonstration against police harassment.

That campaign against the Mangrove — a relentless series of raids and arrests led by Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) — occupies the first half of the movie, after which the action moves to a courtroom in Old Bailey, where the nine stand trial. “Mangrove,” rooted in a true story, is the first of a cluster of five features that McQueen has made about Black life in Britain in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The collection, called “Small Axe” (also the name of a Marley song), is more of an anthology than a series. The chapters are connected by the director’s interest in the interplay between the pleasures and frustrations of everyday life and the larger struggles around race, class and state power in post-imperial Britain.

For Frank, the Mangrove is a business enterprise and a convivial gathering spot for migrants from the Caribbean and their neighbors. To Pulley, the restaurant is an affront to white Englishness, and Frank is a Black man who needs to be forcefully “nudged” back into his place. On the pretext of looking for drugs — or on no pretext at all — the constable and his bobbies burst through the door at all hours, smash up the crockery and even demand changes to the menu. “We only serve spicy cuisine,” Frank insists.

The subject of “Mangrove” is not so much British racism — which is treated as an intolerable but unavoidable fact of life — as the evolution of anti-racist politics. Darcus and his wife, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a fearless organizer for the Black Panther movement, are intellectuals and activists, ready with an analysis of Frank’s predicament and a response to it. They are eloquent and passionate advocates, in and out of court, but McQueen and Alastair Siddons, his co-screenwriter, follow James’s insight in seeing Frank as the central figure in the drama. He’s not just a restaurateur but also, somewhat reluctantly, a civic leader, one whose authority is rooted in communal experience.

When Howe died in 2017, The Guardian’s obituary described the Mangrove as “a small piece of decolonised territory in Notting Hill.” The scenes in and around the establishment bring this idea to life, as the camera circulates among the patrons and staff, catching moments of intimacy and ease as the soundtrack pulses with music and conversation.

Not everything is quite so smooth and harmonious. The courtroom scenes are appropriately theatrical (with a bit of sly scene-stealing from Alex Jennings as the presiding judge), but too many others turn into speeches or shouting matches. McQueen’s realist impulses are sometimes thwarted by didacticism.

But a history lesson doesn’t have to be a lecture, and at its best, “Mangrove,” with its clear and painful implications for the present, conveys the sense of a world in motion, as the possibility of something new comes into being.

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