Small Axe: Mangrove – Movie Review

The Mangrove 9

This year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, has really zoned in on showcasing racial inequality on both the big and small screen. And who can blame filmmakers? There’s been a number of issues this year, typified by George Floyd’s death over in the US; the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Over in the UK, racial inequality is still an issue of course but perhaps not quite as volatile as that in the US. Then again, given the racial hatred spewed by certain members of the public over supermarket Sainsbury’s all-black TV advert, there’s still a long way to go before we’re truly equal.

Small Axe is the latest anthological effort to tackle racial inequality, with a series of 5 films all tied together with a shared effort to shine the spotlight on prejudices within this community. Given the recent release of The Trial Of The Chicago 7, one can’t help but feel a sense of Deja vu while watching the first film of this series, Mangrove.

Much like Chicago 7, Small Axe is a true-story tale that takes place on the cusp of cultural change at the start of 1970. On August 9th of that year, 150 black protestors marched peacefully on the police station in Notting Hill to demonstrate against racial harassment by the police.

That demonstration unfortunately turned ugly when the police stepped in themselves, eventually going all the way to court where 9 black men and women fought for racial equality and argued against the police’s heavy-handed tactics in the events during – and prior – to this event.

Mangrove is essentially a 120 minute film split into two distinct halves tackling this moment in history. While the second half plays out the demonstration and court case thereafter, the first takes its time to build up this budding West Indies community in Mangrove.

At the heart of all this drama is Frank Crichlow’s restaurant, aptly titled Mangrove. Unwittingly, it becomes the beating heart of the area, much to the disgust of the local police officer in the area, PC Pulley.

A bully and xenophobic racist, Pulley becomes entangled in Frank’s affairs, raiding his establishment and doing everything he can to make his life a living hell. There’s even a game he and the other officers play down the station where the one to draw an ace of spades has to arrest the first black man they lay eyes on. As Frank himself tells us midway through, “the law is as crooked as a ram’s horn.”

And how true that statement is. As the veil is lifted and the ugly truth worms its way out the damp corner, we come to see racism play out on every level of the justice system.

The word justice within the courtroom itself is made a mockery; an oxymoron as funny as a straight politician. To put it more plainly, they might as well have “corrupt” written in bold, white letters above the prosecution.

There’s a distinct desire within the framing of this picture to hammer home the underlying message of inequality and it certainly does work a lot of the time. One final shot featuring a clock piece separating the dock from the gallery above is a particular highlight.

It’s no accident that every person featured in this frame are black either, with the clock signifying that time is about to change both for our characters and for society as a whole.

Other times, the innate desire to hammer home the sheer devastation and power of what’s happened doesn’t always work quite so effectively. Seeing a colander rocking lazily back and forth after one of the Mangrove raids for example, unnecessarily drags the picture on when perhaps a tracking shot across the floor may have been more appropriate.

For all of its positives – and don’t get me wrong, the film is great – this one ultimately spins round to that sense of deja vu I mentioned in the review earlier on. Mangrove is undeniably similar to Chicago 7. The second act court case is the same, the mockery of a court-room scenes emanate the same energy and there’s even that same bubbling tension early on for all of this to take place.

Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay however, Mangrove doesn’t quite crackle in the same way. Sure there’s some excellent bits of overlapping dialogue and the speeches toward the end are incredibly moving, but at times this one lacks that same pace and frenetic energy that made Sorkin’s film such an enthralling watch.

As Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While Mangrove is unashamedly pushing the same message over and over again, these are insane times we live in and perhaps repeating the message may just be enough to push for some much-needed cultural change.

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