Sunday, November 22, 2020

Steve McQueen kicks off the Small Axe collection superbly with Mangrove


An image from Mangrove

2020 has been such a rough year from top to bottom. A pandemic, never-ending political idiocy, murder hornets, you name a calamity, 2020 has delivered it. But at least the year can end on a high note in one regard. For five of the last six weeks of 2020, the world will be getting a new Steve McQueen movie! Yes, five features from the genius behind 12 Years a Slave and the criminally underrated Widows are arriving on a weekly basis as part of a collection called Small Axe. Debuting on Amazon Prime's streaming service, the inaugural entry in this series, Mangrove, has just arrived. If it's any indication of what's to come, McQueen is about to deliver to the world weekly doses of grade-A cinema.

Mangrove covers the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. It's the perfect place to get some spicy cuisine, listen to lively music, and for local Black people, who so often feel ostracized by society, to have a safe haven. Unfortunately, the establishment is constantly under attack by the police, particularly Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell). While engaging in a protest against the cops, Crichlow and eight other residents, including activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), are arrested and put on trial for so-called rioting. The odds are stacked against these nine detainees as they struggle to confront a justice system built from the ground up to dehumanize people of color.

Mangrove eventually turns into a harrowing courtroom drama, but before then, McQueen does such lovely work establish the titular location as an inviting locale. The lush colors on the wall and the delightful presence of characters like Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) make it easy to see why the Mangrove would be a hotspot for hanging out. An early scene of everyone just dancing in the street right outside the Mangrove perfectly crystallizes the safety and joy felt here in Crichlow's location. Without even intending to, he's created an oasis for people to be themselves. It's such a thoughtful reflection of how important places in society can truly come from anywhere and anyone.

McQueen and Alastair Siddons' script continues to demonstrate its thoughtfulness once Pulley and the other cops are introduced into the story. Mangrove does not waste screentime giving Pulley a tragic backstory explaining his racism or showing a non-racist cop to prove that "they're not all bad!" The focus of Mangrove is on the humanity of Crichlow and his neighbors, as it should be. Once the courtroom proceedings go underway, McQueen and Siddons deftly demonstrate how systemic racism doesn't just manifest in the police force. It's something that permeates every fabric of society and is normalized through throwaway comments from the judge commenting on how "there are racial biases on both sides".

Even more impressive than how Mangrove grapples with systemic racism is its approach to a courtroom drama. Like any genre that exists for an extended period of time, the hallmarks of the courtroom drama are well-known to even casual viewers, including the judges who will "Allow it...but watch yourself, counselor". It's a testament to just how good Mangrove is that those cliches never once walked through my mind. My eyes were totally focused on the plight of Crichlow and the other eight arrested characters rather than seeing if the production was about to lapse into familiar courtroom drama territory.

The reason for that really is simple; McQueen and Siddons never lose sight of the unique characters at the heart of the legal proceedings. Just look at a scene where Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) have an openly vulnerable conversation about what happens to their kids if they're found guilty. This is a totally unique creation that forgoes evoking courtroom dramas of the past. Instead, it charts its own path and effortlessly provokes your emotions as a result. The intimate nature of Mangrove's approach to the courtroom drama is best and most emotionally potently reflected when the eventual verdict is read. Here, the camera focuses slowly zooming-in on Crichlow's face. The case may have involved nine people but Crichlow's devastating emotional reaction to this verdict is enough to convey the larger consequences of this courtroom battle. Where else would the camera focus?

Such emotionally captivating camerawork from McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner is another one of the many ways Mangrove separates itself from traditional courtroom dramas. I was constantly impressed by the creative ways scenes were framed. A meeting between the nine accused people is filmed on the floor (we only see the bottom of their chairs wiggle around) while twirling camerawork is used to capture the importance of Darcus Howe's (Malachi Kirby) testimony regarding the size of a window used by the police to watch protestors. Mangrove is utterly riveting on an emotional level partially thanks to how its camera is just as alive and vibrant as its on-screen characters. 

Clearly, Mangrove is another excellent achievement from director Steve McQueen. If the subsequent four entries in his Small Axe collection are half as good as Mangrove, then 2020 movies at least will be able to end the year on a high note.

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