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18 November 2020

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films tell forgotten, hidden or hitherto ignored stories

The performances are wonderful, especially those of the women.

By Rachel Cooke

The Mangrove, in All Saints Road, W11, was the kind of place that doesn’t much exist now, least of all in Notting Hill, which thanks to hardcore gentrification has become largely the province of the very rich indeed. Beyond its steamed-up windows were lavish portions of home-cooked food, staff who knew the name of every customer, and a ramshackle decor, comprising formica tables and random knick-knacks, that was all the more welcoming for being real rather than ersatz. But the restaurant also had, for the more than 20 years it was open, a problem. Its clientele was mostly Caribbean, and those enjoying a hearty plateful of goat curry were all too often interrupted by another kind of “customer”: racist coppers, hellbent on harassment.

You may not have heard, until now, of the Mangrove. But that’s half of Steve McQueen’s point. In 1992, the year the restaurant finally closed its doors, its owner Frank Crichlow was paid £50,000 in damages by the Metropolitan Police for false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution. These injustices are the subject of the first of a quintet of new films by the Oscar-winning director focusing on the black experience in Britain. Gathered together under the umbrella Small Axe (after the Bob Marley song), three are based on true events, while the other two are fictional. Either way, all five cover territory that is, to a degree, forgotten, hidden or hitherto ignored. No wonder the BBC has moved the 10pm news in order to make room for them.

Small Axe: Mangrove (15 November, 9pm) begins at the back end of the Sixties, the era of Enoch Powell and unbearable graffiti. Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), having recently opened his new gaff, is hoping for a quieter life (the film only nods to this, but among the customers at his last place, the El Rio, were Christine Keeler and John Profumo). Some hope. Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), a local constable whose bigotry is deployed in his professional life with an enthusiasm that’s all-encompassing, soon turns up – marking the beginning of a campaign of intimidation that sends the community out on the streets in protest. In the crowd are a young barrister called Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and the Black Panther activist, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). Subsequently, nine men and women – Crichlow, Howe and Jones-LeCointe among them – are charged with incitement to riot. Their trial takes place at the Old Bailey, and the second half of the film is devoted almost entirely to it.

[see also: Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher reinvigorate The Crown

There’s a lot to cherish in Small Axe: Mangrove. The performances are wonderful, especially those of the women. Wright, sometimes steely and sometimes trembling, captures the activist heart marvellously well: its tendency to hector as well as to cajole. Rochenda Sandall as Barbara Beese, another of those charged and the mother of Howe’s child, is radiantly forceful in the role. The film would have been vastly poorer without Llewella Gideon as Crichlow’s comical Greek chorus of an auntie. I liked the way it looked, too: the peeling stucco, the crummy cars, the brown-and-mustard palette. The montage of the construction of the Westway, all concrete and optimism, was lovely – a flash of sunlight peeping through the slats of a dusty venetian blind.

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But I must be honest. Small Axe:Mangrove, which runs to an indulgent 130 minutes, is also flabby and a bit plodding. Could nothing have been cut? (I’d have started with the colander that rolls in such artistic fashion in the Mangrove kitchen after a police raid.) It goes without saying that my mind and my heart expand at the thought that stories like this are at last being told. Beyond such a cheering notion, however, lay only a guilty boredom in this instance. Long speeches, however impassioned, do not necessarily make for involving dialogue. Even the most momentous events require help in the narrative stakes. Import and drama are not precisely the same thing. We can only hope that in the films that follow, McQueen and his co-writers have remembered these crucial, but quite basic, things. 

Small Axe: Mangrove 

[see also: Why I struggled to stay awake through The Undoing​]

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation