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I know that it's only January, but I'll come right out and say that Steve McQueen's Mangrove is, by far, one of the best movies of the year.
No, I'm not just saying this because of my obsession with Black Panther's Letitia Wright (although that certainly is a factor) and no, I'm not simply referring to the plethora of positive reviews from critics that are floating around the Internet right now. I say this because it has been a really long time since I felt this moved by a film. The courtroom drama not only took me through a roller coaster of emotions, but it also taught me a bit of overlooked history, including an honest portrayal of the Black British experience during the 1970s.
Based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, Mangrove centers on Frank Crichlow, who runs a Caribbean restaurant in west London during the early '70s. After dealing with repeated police raids, Frank teams up with his community and organizes a peaceful march. However, Frank and eight other protesters are arrested and falsely accused of inciting a riot. This results in a lengthy and highly publicized trial that raises valid questions about the legitimacy of the judicial process.
The historical drama, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is the first installment of McQueen's five-part film anthology, called "Small Axe." I've yet to continue the series, partly because I've been obsessively Googling the Mangrove Nine and also because I don't feel quite ready to move on just yet. In addition to its heartbreaking moments, I want to keep savoring the sweeter parts of this film, from the colorful block parties to the characters' impromptu performance of Mighty Sparrow's "Jean And Dinah."
Below, see four reasons why I'm so obsessed with Mangrove—and more importantly, why it deserves your attention.
1. It highlights a piece of history that's largely ignored
Before I saw this movie, I had never heard of the Mangrove Nine—and one look at fans' responses to the film on social media will tell you that I am just one of many. It goes to show that this story (and many others that center on Black British history) are rarely ever acknowledged or talked about. And it's actually what inspired McQueen to create Mangrove, along with his other Small Axe films.
While speaking with The Guardian, the British filmmaker said, "What was really surprising to me is that this trial, which is a milestone in terms of Black people having their own voices and being heard, is not really known about in this country. It has never been given the attention it deserved."
He added, "I just felt that, in terms of television drama, we are still missing. We are missing from the conversation. We are missing from the narrative. And to me that is weird. Not to see yourself or any aspects of ordinary life that reflect your experiences of growing up in Britain, that is just plain weird."
2. It paints a beautiful picture of West Indian culture
In the film, Frank doesn't just open a restaurant. He manages to create a safe space for his community to celebrate their Trinidadian culture, complete with spicy dishes and classic reggae tunes. I reveled in the characters' playful banter and the sound of their thick accents, because it truly felt like they were all back home. As someone who was raised by West Indian immigrants, I could understand their desire to stay connected to their roots, especially in a time when it felt like their efforts were futile.
3. It's filled with powerful performances
Whenever I watch a film, I tend to spot a handful of actors who stand out because of their strong performances, but in this case, the entire cast is truly outstanding. Mangrove's talented lineup includes Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Shaun Parkes, Rochenda Sandall, Nathaniel Martello-White, Darren Braithwaite, Richie Campbell, Duane Facey-Peason and Jumayn Hunter.
As impressed as I am by these actors, I must give a particular shoutout to Parkes, who does a stellar job of embodying Frank Crichlow, and Wright, who shines as the fearless leader of the British Black Panther Movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe.
4. It's especially relevant today
As we saw in 2020, the murder of George Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality sparked outrage across the nation, inspiring millions to take action in the fight against racial injustice. People were moved to protest and sign petitions. Activists and politicians called for police reform. Companies felt compelled to roll out new diversity initiatives. And it all happened because countless Americans decided that enough was enough.
I imagine that this was how the Black British community felt 50 years ago, when the Mangrove endured several raids by police who insisted on destroying their right to live freely. As a result, 150 people would stand up to an oppressive system by joining a peaceful protest—one that would lead to police violence, false charges and, as depicted in the film, an eight-week-long trial that would make history.
I'll admit, there are parts of this film that are very difficult to watch. You can't help but feel the community's deep anger when their safe haven is constantly violated by racist cops, or when the Mangrove Nine have to deal with discrimination in the courtroom. Still, it's a timely reminder of how much damage a rigged justice system can do.
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