Screening Review: Mangrove + Q&A with director Steve McQueen and Small Axe Consultant Paul Gilroy on 22/10/21
A hush, a darkness, and then the lilting rhythm of a Caribbean tune (‘Long Long Time’ by The Versatiles); so began my evening at the BFI watching Steve McQueen’s masterful film Mangrove. As the film’s first scenes washed across the screen, the loose ease of the soundtrack belied the gravity of the story soon to unfold.
"...who truly has the right to safe, private space in the old Empire’s capital?"
Released in the wake of a racially-charged summer, Mangrove belongs to McQueen’s wider 2020 television film series Small Axe, described by the BBC as ‘[l]ove letters to black resilience’. The first in the series, Mangrove opens in 1968 Notting Hill and follows the true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black activists and civilians who protested police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant, then known as a hub for the local Caribbean community. On the basis of falsified police evidence, the Mangrove Nine later faced charges of incitement to riot and affray at the Old Bailey courthouse. Touching performances by actors Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby do justice to this poignant moment in history.
Moving between the cold courthouse, the bright-white police station, the violent street and the warm, smoky Mangrove restaurant, McQueen’s film functions as an essay on space and race. With multiple scenes in which intimate Black interiors are violently interrupted by the thump, thump, thump of the police at the door, Mangrove poses the question: who truly has the right to safe, private space in the old Empire’s capital? The intrusive presence of the Westway, a disruptive mega-road for which construction began in 1964, emphasises the threat posed to Black domestic space by powerful, public forces in 1960s London. Yet the rising skeleton of a tower-block within the film’s first few scenes also creates a link to our contemporary moment. Looming grey and ghostly on the horizon, the tower-block seems to forebode the 2017 Grenfell tragedy, reminding viewers that racialised space continues to be made unsafe in 21st Century London.
After the film, as the lights came on and more than one audience member groped furiously in their bag for tissues, BFI creative director Heather Stewart welcomed director Steve McQueen and scholar Paul Gilroy to the stage. It was at this point that I experienced my only issue with the event. Simply put, Stewart, though no doubt a brilliant creative force in her own right, spent a lot of time talking. While the audience was hungry for insights from McQueen and Gilroy, Stewart seemed to take up many of our precious moments with the pair by asking less relevant questions, such as, I kid you not, whether actor Shaun Parkes was smoking a real cigarette in certain scenes. When it finally came to audience questions, there was only time for three lucky individuals to address Gilroy and McQueen directly - a shame.
Prominent Black creatives often seem burdened by a duty to tell painful but important stories from Black history. A question I might have asked McQueen, had I gotten the chance (not bitter), is this: how do you cope with confronting racial trauma in your work, while also needing to be productively creative?
Author: Orla Schätzlein
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