The first installment of ‘Small Axe’ packs quite a punch.
The film industry is in a strange place right now. Movie theaters are still largely shut down and streaming services are capturing the attention of those of us who are still physically distancing. The traditional ways of distributing, promoting, and viewing content have gone out the window. It’s been chaotic. But there’s also been an opportunity for exploration and creativity.
I think that Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is an example of that. It’s a series of five films — a hybrid between a movie and a TV show. I’m not sure what exactly to call it, but I’m a fan. I love it when someone is given the freedom to experiment and create something new.
Mangrove is the first of the series. It is the longest of the Small Axe films and is a riveting ride to be on. It follows the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who were arrested after a protest against the police. The film follows their trial, which results in the first judicial mention of racism by the Metropolitan Police.
I live in America and can be quick to believe that everything revolves around us, even our most grievous national sins. I can so easily forget that racism is not isolated to, nor did it originate here in America. This is something that plagues our world and I love it when art is able to remind me of this fact.
Racism isn’t just an American problem, it’s a global problem.
Mangrove is a beautiful film. Steve McQueen has such a distinctive style that is bold and courageous. There are moments where the camera lingers for longer than is comfortable, giving us time to digest what we’re viewing. We get to sit in the aftermath of certain decisions. We get to pause and have a forced moment of silence. It’s great and simultaneously off-putting. He knows exactly who and what he wants us to focus on and expertly guides our attention there.
The story is a phenomenal one that I hadn’t heard of before. It’s astonishing and heartbreaking how little certain things have changed in our world in the 50 years since the trial. While watching, I sat with my mouth agape, wondering how Black people survived before the invention of camera phones and the ability to live stream from our devices.
Today, injustice can be readily documented, but that wasn’t the case back then — the fact that the defendants were able to mount the case they did is so impressive to me. They were fighting for justice and truth and were able to win that battle and achieve that narrow victory. But the war they were fighting is still raging on today.
Frank (Shaun Parkes) is the owner of the Mangrove Restaurant that becomes a place for the community to go and get a taste of home. The police end up terrorizing the restaurant, barging in without warrants, breaking furniture, and arresting people unjustly. Frank is just trying to run a restaurant, he’s not trying to make a statement or make waves and his internal conflict is obvious throughout. Shaun Parkes does a phenomenal job in this film, communicating so much in the long shots where we just see him staring off in the distance or smoking a cigarette.
In one scene, he is being pressured by his solicitor to plead guilty to the charges against him and the eight other defendants. His white solicitor claims that he can only protect Frank if he pleads guilty. If the defendants continue provoking the judge as they have, he fears that Frank could get sentenced even more heavily.
When Altheia (Letitia Wright) hears this, she launches into an impassioned speech about what they are doing there together. She makes two points that I think are so important: 1. They are fighting for the future, not for themselves, and 2. The well-being of the collective is important.
In 2020, I became hyper-aware of the individualism that comes so easily in my country. I had always thought that individualism was a good thing. I hadn’t ever really taken the time to consider the downside of being so focused on ourselves. But finally, in 2020, I started to see it. Sometimes I do have to lay down my rights to protect or help another. Sometimes I have to do something courageous for someone else. Sometimes I do have to put my self-interest aside for the good of future generations. Sadly, these aren’t things that are often taught here in the U.S. and I think that’s a shame.
We also tend to avoid thinking about the long-ranging consequences of our actions. I love that Altheia is so focused on the next generation and the one after that. She knows that things weren’t going to change overnight, but that doesn’t stop her from doing what she can, how and when she can. In the film, she and her fellow defendants are fighting for the lives of their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.
While watching, I kept thinking to myself, Racism has flourished over many generations and it will take many generations to undo. I’m heartbroken that that’s the case. I wish we could wave a magic wand and make it all better. But that’s simply not the case. I also don’t think that we should resign ourselves to inactivity just because it is difficult. We shouldn’t choose inaction because we likely won’t see racism’s departure from our world in our generation.
In another memorable moment in the film, Altheia says, “We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists of our stories.” And they do exactly that. Both Altheia and another defendant Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) end up representing themselves, meaning they have an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and even address the judge.
There was a white solicitor Ian (Jack Lowden) who championed them and helped them prepare for the trial. He helped them come up with the strategy. Now, if this film had been written and directed by a white person, Ian would’ve been the protagonist. He would’ve gotten lots of screen time and given a fantastic speech or two. He would’ve been the example to let people who look like me off the hook.
Instead, I think that Ian provides a really good example of what it means to be an ally. He gives Darcus and Altheia an opportunity to speak for themselves and only when they aren’t heard, does he step in. On more than one occasion, he has to vouch for Darcus in front of the judge. He doesn’t presume to speak for them, but silently encourages them. He doesn’t make their trial all about him or making a name for himself. Instead, he meaningfully engages in the fight how he can.
Mangrove is a powerful tale about ordinary people who are willing to risk their lives to fight for the rights of future generations. It’s about a community of people who have each other’s backs. It’s filled with joy and anger, hatred and sorrow in a fight that’s still being waged today.
This is a film I hope more people are able to see and engage with, there’s a lot to be gleaned from this work, even for those of us in America.