‘Take off that ridiculous hat!” a British judge orders a defendant. The latter, puzzled, is wearing a knit cap. The former has placed atop his head a costume-party 17th-century woolen wig with tight curls in rows across the top. Who is being ridiculous here?
That deft, wry moment arises in English director Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, about a case involving nine people from the West Indian community in London who were tried for inciting a riot in 1970. Although scuffles did break out between black protesters and white constables during a bitter anti-police protest, a jury found the leaders of the march hadn’t intended to spark violence, and further ruled that there was racist animosity on both sides — an unusual dig at the police at the time.
Mangrove, which runs over two hours, is an exhaustive and heavy-handed recreation of a case that was other than earth-shattering. But it’s part of an admirable larger project to document the experiences of the Caribbean-immigrant community in which McQueen grew up. McQueen (the director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave) has made a five-part series of linked stories about this subculture called Small Axe, which was made by the BBC and will air in the U.S later this fall on Amazon Prime video. Along with Lovers Rock, the first film in that series, Mangrove is showing at the New York Film Festival.
The lightness of touch in the judge’s haberdashery ruling is not, alas, characteristic of the film as a whole, which establishes a mood of high dudgeon in the opening minutes, when we observe graffiti reading “Wogs out” and “Powell for PM” on the streets, and keeps its temperature at a boiling point throughout. Many American viewers will miss the significance of some of the details — the British politician Enoch Powell was widely perceived as a racist demagogue after his “rivers of blood” speech railing against immigration — but after half a dozen scenes of police brutality and malfeasance in the opening half-hour of Mangrove, they’ll quickly get the picture: West Indians are being harassed by the police in Notting Hill to such an appalling degree that the film might as well be set in 1963 Alabama. Practically the first remark out of a cop’s mouth in the movie is, “The thing about the black man is . . . he’s just got to know his place,” and cops play a card game in which whoever draws the ace of spades must immediately go out and harass a black person. On the other side, dialogue tends to be declamatory: “We don’t need luck, Mister, we need justice!”
Were things really this dire for black Londoners in the late Sixties and early Seventies? I have no idea. But as storytelling, the film quickly becomes monotonous, with too many scenes making the same point rather than advancing a story. The pace is slack and the payoff isn’t particularly riveting; we’re not talking about a major victory for civil rights here, merely a questionable prosecution that was properly answered by acquittal on the main charges. The stakes are not high enough here to justify the zealous tone of the film.
Mangrove was the name of a Caribbean restaurant whose owner, the Trinidad-born Frank Crichlow (furiously played by Shaun Parkes), believed he was being unfairly targeted by police, who raided the place several times but found no evidence that it was a haven for criminal activity. Police argued that Crichlow was under a cloud of suspicion because his previous restaurant, Rio, had hosted illegal gambling and prostitution, a point Crichlow concedes in the movie. McQueen suggests the real reason the restaurant was targeted was because Black Power activists were meeting there to discuss politics. Eventually Crichlow and his friends organized a march of 150 to the local police station, during which demonstrators denounced police as “pigs” and carried a pig’s head; in time, a fight broke out between the two sides after someone threw a bottle at the cops. The legal issue was whether the riot broke out spontaneously or whether Crichlow and friends caused it to occur. A large chunk of the movie takes place in the courtroom (some of the defendants acting as their own lawyers) where McQueen paints a picture of the police as being stupid as well as malevolent, making up evidence and tripping over their own lies.
Mangrove finds a black community learning to assert its rights, and McQueen regards the legal case as a turning point for an oppressed people. Among both courtroom dramas and civil-rights stories, though, his film is nothing special. A dozen years ago, in his first film Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikes, McQueen was a subtle and beguiling filmmaker. In his latest effort he’s more conventional, more insistent, more direct, and less interesting.