Small Axe is a series of five films directed by Steve McQueen, now showing over five consecutive weekends on BBC1, each one centring on the experience of Black people living in Britain. The movies will be available on iPlayer for the next year and are purchasable internationally on Amazon Prime. The title of the anthology comes from the Bob Marley song of the same name which speaks of combating institutional evil and injustice like a small axe persistently chopping at a big tree.
The first of these, Mangrove, is available now having aired yesterday evening.
It is no surprise to find that this is the case, as McQueen is a brilliant director, but Mangrove is a strong start for what promises to be an excellent and important series. The Mangrove was, up until 1992, a restaurant and social hub selling Caribbean cuisine in Notting Hill. It welcomed a number of famous customers including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and Marley himself and was the unofficial headquarters of the Carnival. When it opened in the late sixties it was immediately subjected to a series of Police Raids causing significant emotional harm and damage to property, the intention of which was certainly to close it down and to rob the Black community of a valuable meeting place. Many supporters of the establishment and owner Frank Critchlow, including key members of the British Black Panther movement, marched on the Notting Hill police station in protest in 1969 but the demonstration turned violent and nine of the protesters, including Critchlow, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot. The film tells of the events leading up to this and the subsequent trial.
Centring as it does on The Mangrove 9, as those charged were known, this film immediately draws comparison to The Trial of the Chicago 7 which was released just one month ago. Both feature court cases around the same supposed crimes, the trials themselves took place within two years of one another, and both highlighted horrible racial prejudice with their attempts to demonise Black Panther members. Mangrove is a very different film though, and I have to say an even better one.
Mangrove is all about racial injustice and the case was significant in highlighting police prejudice and discrimination. As such it will make you more angry and without the same elements of humour seen in Sorkin’s film, it carries a lot more power. This is not an overly uncomfortable watch but it tells it’s story without the need for showboating, something The Trial of the Chicago 7 did do, and makes its point simply, eloquently and strongly.
There is a wonderful moment in the court case here in which activist and broadcaster Darcus Howe, accused and defending himself, says that the case has opened up issues that will shape society to such an extent that the history of Britain cannot be written without it. This is no overstatement. Still though, there are many who don’t know about it. History has often been told without it and this movie works to address that. Personally I know more about the Guildford 4 than I do about the Mangrove 9 and I am sure this is because the lessons I have been fed are tailored to the colour of my skin. I’m grateful to McQueen for re-educating me.
From a filmic point of view the performances are brilliant. Malachi Kirby it superb as Howe and his closing speech is as good as any in ninety years of courtroom dramas. Hearing it you can’t believe any jury would convict but this is true life not storytelling so what should or shouldn’t happen has no place, only what did. Letitia Wright, playing a Black Panther for quite possibly not the last time, is also outstanding. Wright’s career has soared in the last four years and will no doubt continue to do so but this is and may long be her best work. Shaun Parkes is convincingly intense as Critchlow, his is probably the lead, but credit also needs to go to Alex Jennings as the judge who gives a balanced showing where he could have edged into pantomime villainy (as Frank Langella might have done in The Trial of the Chicago 7, a little).
What is clear at the end is that this was all one battle in a bigger war and am definitely now signed up to follow McQueen as he traces how the campaign progressed.
Oh and finally, how lovely to see Derek Griffiths again.