The second Steve McQueen film to premiere at this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival, Mangrove is the first segment of the Small Axe series, focusing on the lives of members of London’s West Indian community throughout the late twentieth century. Starring Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, and Malachi Kirby, the film tells the story of the racially-charged protests surrounding a black-owned cafe targeted by police brutality, and the subsequent trial of the Mangrove 9.
While some may have viewed McQueen’s previous entry, Lover’s Rock, as a more passive and easygoing chapter in his storied career, Mangrove sees McQueen returning to the type of storytelling that brought him his highest praise yet. Working in tandem with co-writer Alastair Siddons, they are able to deliver an emotionally gripping, timely, and urgent narrative that succeeds in its thematic exploration of racial tension and injustices seen in everyday life. Starting off with vigilant police officers keeping an unnecessarily watchful eye on Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) cafe, it soon delves into showing how even the most minute interactions between Frank and the officers is motivated by a despicable need to inflict harm on Frank and his community on the Police officers part that slowly builds up until it reaches its tipping point and they begin to raid and destroy his cafe just because they can, drawing unfortunate but necessary parallels to what has become an institutional problem that still is present to this day. Finally finding the strength and courage to push back, the community soon retorts with passionate protests that result in a thrillingly-told biased trial that is somehow able to end with a powerful moment that leaves one with a slight sense of optimism. Structured in an intriguing way that works perfectly to highlight the racial and economic discrepancies of our society, McQueen and Siddons create all-too familiar situations and bring them to life with vibrant, well rounded characters that deliver impactful dialogue but know when actions speak louder than words–even in the courtroom.
As expected, the entire cast is perfectly attuned to the tone of the narrative, and many bring forth career-best performances that are worthy of numerous nominations here. Letitia Wright shines as Altheia Jones-LaCointe, a representative of the Black Panthers, who instigates and heightens the community to fight for what is right and speak out against the power. A far cry from her breakout role as Shuri in Black Panther, here, she brings a certain fierce outspokenness to the character that deserves to be remembered for the rest of the year. However, the indubitable standout of the entire film is Shaun Parkes. Playing the owner of the titular cafe, we experience most of the film through his eyes as we go on a heart wrenching and inspirational journey as he finds his ground. At first a passive victim who stands in fear and utter powerlessness as higher forces attempt to manipulate his community and assert their dominance, he soon begins to have the courage to stand up for himself and champion his values, ending with a riveting courthouse speech with such raw emotion, landing in a manner that is sure to bring tears to one’s eyes.
Once again, however, what truly brings the film home is the stunning direction from Steve McQueen. Unlike anything he has ever done before, McQueen does not fall prey to the sheer weight and importance of the story being told, and is able to perfectly capture the era and sentiments of the public during these times. His most ambitious and exciting work yet, the way in which he stages the central raids and protests, with tracking shots, tightly cut sequences, and a thundering score, results in an urgent and gripping experience that does not let up as the racial tensions begin to build between the two sides. What many filmmakers would turn into a flat and visually uninteresting film, instead results in a vibrat and visually stunning picture guided by McQueen’s steady hand.
Perhaps the most important film of the year, Mangrove is an artistic triumph for all involved. An ambitious and gripping masterclass that is able to explore the multifaceted struggles of a marginalized community in a compelling way, Steve McQueen delivers his best work yet with an emotionally impactful call for justice that is sure to stay at the forefront of our social conversation for as long as these injustices are seen in our society.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Mangrove as a part of the Small Axe series on November 20.