Steve McQueen, director of the magnetic new film Mangrove, treats injustice as if it were a personal affront to mankind.
His full-fight-mode approach was on display in his first film, Hunger (2008), the story of an Irishman who goes on a hunger strike to protest British colonialism threatening the country's freedoms. His hunger strike is meaningfully life threatening and harrowing. And in the film that vaunted McQueen to global fame, 21 Years a Slave, he brings the viewer up close into the world of a Black man kidnapped into slavery in pre-Civil War America and the many indignities and indecencies of that era.
His new film, now playing on Amazon Prime Video, is of similar cloth. In the first of five anthology films in a series called Small Axe, McQueen chronicles Black life in Great Britain over several decades. In Mangrove, he tells the story of Caribbean immigrants who take up residence in the Notting Hill section of London. There, they forge their own cultural mecca, a U.K. northern tropics featuring the cuisine, swagger, ganja and reggae beats of their homelands in Trinidad and Jamaica. As one of their leaders, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) says in voiceover, they are a new type of brother- and sisterhood that is unafraid of expressing themselves in their adopted homeland.
The cultural heart turns out to be a newly minted restaurant and meeting spot, The Mangrove, in the center of a busy square. Owner Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes) is a world-weary entrepreneur who has shifted focus from dice parlors to a more legitimate business that he thinks of as quiet and unassuming. He decides to serve up the spicy food of his youth, the roti and curries that keep his clientele's stomachs filled.
But the smells soon bring in neighborhood denizens looking for a place to talk, to socialize, to hold meetings, to be themselves. With a sign on the door reading "Under Black Ownership," the place becomes a comfort to those wanting communal harmony. McQueen films the spot from all angles, including low shots of feet and of table legs scraping the floor, and he uses tracking cameras to survey a landscape filled with laughter and heated debate.
But the wrong kind of attention it also attracts. McQueen treats the municipal police force the same way he would a slave owner or a colonial master: as a vehicle to keep those it considers less important from rising up and threatening the existing autocracy. It does so by blunt force, as if violence was the only way to put immigrants in their place.
The first time we meet the police constables of Notting Hill, they are sitting in an unmarked van watching The Mangrove. Their chief, PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), looks both haunted and dismissive. He tells a younger officer how important it is to keep "these people" in their place and fearful of white authority. The other officer looks a bit uncertain, aware that there's a pathology to CP Pulley that might get out of hand.
It soon does. Pulley's troops begin raiding The Mangrove for the slightest pretext -- or with no pretext at all -- to keep its citizens from getting too comfortable. It is no simple warning; the officers crack dishes with their wands, punch protesting patrons in the stomach, overturn tables and attempt to destroy kitchenware. Pulley even complains about the island food, to which Critchlow replies that they will only serve spicy fare.
In one powerful scene, a young police recruit loses a wager. For his punishment, he must pull the first male immigrant he sees from the street and beat him. He does this energetically enough, coming out of a back alley to the waiting police van with his bloodied quarry. Hunt over. The man is taken back to the station, where he is held without bond and cannot be seen by family members until the sergeant in charge is good and ready to release the scarred victim.
The story, based on true events, escalates after the citizenry has had enough of living under a police state. The British arm of the Black Panther movement, in a meeting held at the communal spot, decides to launch a peaceful street protest to demand their rights, carrying placards extolling Black Power and keeping The Mangrove safe.
McQueen expertly shows us the expected police response -- body blows, the breaking of signs, cracked skulls, the dragging of British citizens through the streets to waiting police vans. With tight editing, the camera snakes between scenes of violence contrasting with the shouts through megaphones of the protesters to stay calm in the midst of a police riot. It is utter chaos he shows us, using long shots to trail residents being brutalized.
It is there, midway through the film, that the plot takes a turn into courtroom drama. In one of the first instances in Britain society where a metropolitan police department is accused of racial hatred triggering a riot, a case is formed to save the nine defendants ("The Mangrove Nine") from jail time. The nine are accused of an utterly murky British crime called riot and affray and could serve decades in prison for the offense.
While the group hires two White lawyers, the story only uses them for window dressing and has several defendants give their own verbal arguments. This is notable for a modern movie; instead of having a Great White Savior swoop in to get the defendants off, McQueen lets the Trinidadians speak for themselves. Led by leaders of the Black Panther outfit, they are eloquent and polite -- another shift from movies where defendants are supposed to shout down the judge and mock the authority of the courtroom.
This trial does take place, after all, in the Old Bailey, an august judicial manor in London that McQueen honors with reverence. Several times, he points his camera on the high, muraled ceiling in the main lobby and widens the camera's focus to show the vastness of the courtroom. The defendants sit in an overhanging balcony over the lawyers and bench, a chorus of onlookers who sometimes interrupt and cheer.
The speeches can be just that, too much speechifying and a bit like a civics lecture, but McQueen makes pains to show what this case really means. It is not about whether the cops are racist -- we know that they are -- but more about the preservation of culture and community. Through his protagonists, McQueen, who also was a writer on this film, expresses ideas that the lower classes of Great Britain deserve a voice and that it is not one that will destroy the British order, no matter how antiquated. Just leave us alone to our culture.
Take away The Mangrove, and keep the people of Notting Hill under the twisting thumb of the police, and society suffers. At one point, Howe points to the defendants in the upper box, set coolly apart from others in the courtroom, and talks of their pride and their place in Great Britain. That a stuffy, racially charged society should take that away makes England no better than a third-world dictatorship, not the diverse society it claims to be. After all, this took place at the end of Swinging Sixties, an anything-goes era in London with chic fashion and loud parties.
There are modern-day images at work here, from a law-and-order movement that also wants to keep minority citizens in their place and protect the streets to the demonizing of Black Lives Matter groups. A sense of community, equal rights and the freedom to congregate and communicate drive this film, as they do the wheels of justice.