The project SMALL AXE it is quite curious. It is not quite a series or a miniseries. Nor is it a movie saga in the most conventional sense. Nor are they just several single movies. What the maker of SHAME Made is a series of films related to a theme: the lives and experiences of Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain over the course of several decades. Each film has a different title, duration, cast, and era. But they are all part of the same project produced by the BBC and Amazon Prime, whose “episodes” will be released, week by week. In England, via the BBC. And in the United States, through Amazon Prime, something that began last Friday, the 20th. In the local (Argentine) version of Prime Video they still do not appear.
MANGROVE is the first of those films (with its structure and its two-hour duration calling it an “episode” sounds a bit forced), one that is based on a real case known as “The Mangrove 9” that took place in London, more precisely in the Notting Hill area, in the late ’60s and early’ 70s. The Mangrove in question was a restaurant that served food creole Afro-Caribbean immigrant communities (from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados, Belize, the Virgin Islands and other countries of the British orbit) that had been arriving in the country since the end of the Second World War. And it was a meeting point for friendships, entertainment and, also, for a growing social conscience inspired by the different revolutionary and liberation movements of the world, including the Black Panthers, who had their fans and representatives.
The Mangrove was constantly harassed by the local police, who used to break in, break everything and vacate the place with the most absurd accusations. Managed by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the place begins to empty as a result of so many repeated raids until some of his most renowned clients (activists and intellectuals such as Darcus Howe, Altheia Jones and Barbara Beese, among others) decide to do a march and street demonstration denouncing the police constraints. The peaceful demonstration turns violent when the very denounced police arrive at the march ready to disarm it with blows. The affair ends with several detainees (the “nine” in the case) who are brought to trial for “incitement to violence.”
MANGROVE it is divided into two very clear parts. The first, more descriptive, is a deep immersion in the boisterous and lively lifestyle of that community –reggae and its variants are the film’s soundtrack– which we are getting to know in private, with its different accents and peculiarities. The constant police harassment gives the film an air of old Spike Lee films, such as DO THE RIGHT, especially from some somewhat exaggerated characterizations, such as that of the racist policeman Pully, who maliciously enjoys every time he destroys the effort and work of Frank and his people.
That part will end with the demonstration in question and the second will focus on the trial itself, with its “British peculiarities.” Here the film will have quite a few points in common with the recent THE CHICAGO 7TH TRIAL with which it shares not only time and the fact of being a group trial with a lot of politics but also due to the strong clash of styles between a judicial system (and a judge) full of protocols, cold and «appropriate», facing a wide group , noisy and not very fond of the centuries-old rituals, wig and all, of the British Justice. A nice scene in which the judge, wearing a wig, asks the defendants to take off the simple black caps they are wearing, makes that shock clear.
MANGROVE it is powerful but not subtle at all. It’s a movie that has the finesse of a hammer hitting a wall, something McQueen is clearly looking for, whose style in other movies tended to be more cold and detached. Here, except for some visual notes in specific scenes and a length of shots longer than usual for this type of story, there is little that is observed from the director of 12 YEARS OF SLAVERY. At some point, that twist is welcome: despite the density of its subject, the film at times has a humor and lightness unusual in his cinema. In others, however, it sins by an excessively standard format in which certain ideas are reiterated over and over again in a way that goes beyond underlining.
The context in which the film is released (which debuted at the New York Film Festival in late September) greatly favors its reception. Amid movements like Black Lives Matter and the constant and continuing history of police violence against black communities, MANGROVE it can be seen as an almost militant film, one that could have been choked with applause or boos amid the speeches of some characters had it been released in theaters. On the small, home screen, the “evangelistic” effect is somewhat lost.
What does not disappear is the particularity of the universe that McQueen shows. We have seen many similar cases in the United States but the racial problems in Britain – with the Afro-Caribbean communities, more than anything else – have not been widely publicized in the cinema. And this is how MANGROVE it manages to avoid being seen only as the civic lesson that we all know. Being local, narrating from the inside (McQueen is part of that community), exposing his music (Bob Marley and Toots & The Maytals, but also others less famous) and also making known historical figures – such as the eloquent Howe – not very well known outside of Great Britain, the film overcomes its own self-imposed limitations. Beyond its flaws, MANGROVE it manages to be the painting of a brutally abused community that joins in the fight so that it is recognized that this place in the world, badly as it is for some generations of British white men, is also their home.
Here is the Playlist of all the films in the series SMALL AXE. The music corresponding to MANGROVE extends to the classic «Pressure Drop«, de Toots & the Maytals.
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Estrenos online: “Small Axe 1: Mangrove”, de Steve McQueen (BBC/Amazon Prime)