Fifty years ago this week, the trial of the Mangrove Nine began. Somhairle Mag Uidhir reviews its recent dramatisation by Steve McQueen, highlighting the structural racism and community struggle the case embodies.
Within the wood-panelled and imperial walls of London’s Old Bailey, nine Black women and men took on a racist criminal justice system on their own terms. They were there on trumped-up charges of inciting riotous behaviour after a march organised in defence of the Mangrove, a restaurant-cum-hub for the local West-Indian community.
The case left a legacy far beyond the eventual verdict. It is credited with future changes to the law, as well as exposing for the first time, in an official forum, the racism at the heart of the Metropolitan Police.
Their story has now been told in Mangrove, part of a series of films, Small Axe, by renowned director Steve McQueen. In a year that has been defined by, among other things, a global resurgence of the movement for Black Lives, it is fitting that this story receives a dramatisation by McQueen’s expert hand.
The Whole Truth
The blurb for the Small Axe collection describes it as a series of “love letters to black resilience and triumph in London’s West Indian community.” In the case of Mangrove, it’s an appropriate summary.
McQueen, via some tremendous performances, depicts highs and lows; violence and community spirit; racism and struggle; all with an intensity that can only be born of deep solidarity.
After Frank Crichlow opened the Mangrove restaurant in 1968, it soon became a go-to place for the West Indian community in Notting Hill. Following repeated and egregious police raids on the establishment – 12 in total between 1969 and 1970 – Crichlow along with some Black Panther and community activists organised a protest march through the local area.
The rallying call was a defence of the restaurant. But as Black Panther Althea Jones-LeCointe, played superbly by Letitia Wright, yells to the gathered crowd, the attacks directed against the Mangrove weren’t isolated events. Rather they were part of a “sustained campaign against Black people by the British state”. The rally was as much about the everyday instances of racism and police brutality experienced by the Black community, as it was about this venue which had the audacity to serve spicy West Indian cuisine.
And just as there was no subtlety to Jones-LeCointe’s charge against the British state, neither is there in the film’s depiction of police racism. McQueen – who won an Oscar with 12 Years a Slave and made the biopic about Bobby Sands, Hunger – continues his reputation for showing oppression in its most ugly and therefore most accurate form.
Because for McQueen, the role of the storyteller is simple:
Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Ugly, hurtful, joyous, painful… Rain or shine, that’s how it’s got to be.
The story of the Mangrove Nine is all that and more. As the community marched, they were eventually met by a heavy police presence. Reports reveal that over 700 officers had been freed up for deployment on the day – a gross overreaction to a peaceful demonstration of around a few hundred at most. Afterwards, nine Black women and men were charged with inciting a riot.
McQueen doesn’t directly include this aspect of the story (although it is hinted at), but this prosecution was a direct result of an intervention from right at the top of the British Government, who at the time were worried about the ‘threat’ from a surge in Black activism.
When governments attempt to criminalise political movements, they draw from a tried-and-tested bag of tricks. And so the Mangrove trial mirrored many a trial in Britain’s history: the system utterly weighted against the accused; the establishment pompous and sneering; and the media chomping at the bit to issue slander.
“Eat the Rich,” “Enoch Powell for PM”, and “W**s Out” adorn the corrugated iron fences which form the backdrop to Mangrove’s superb opening sequence, where the camera follows Crichlow walking through Notting Hill. Over the visuals of his journey we soon hear the voice of Darcus Howe paraphrasing the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James:
These are new men, new types of human beings. … Note particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders but they are rooted deep among those they lead.
The dominant theme of the next two hours is foreshadowed here: race, and the importance of community, struggle, and the ‘organic leaders’ which will shape their fortunes. There is no attempt to sneak politics in through the backdoor, the early parts of Mangrove are a blitz of scene-setting radicalism.
Howe – a Black Panther, one of the Nine and nephew of C.L.R. James – is shown on a TV screen challenging the racist system in Britain. James himself is depicted, extolling the possibility of revolution.
Another scene has Jones-LeCointe addressing South East Asian factory workers. She calls on them to join their union, to engage in collective struggle, for it is struggle “which makes us whole”.
As with much of the radicalism of the 1960s, contradictions are ever-present. After having tea with some of the workers – all male – Jones-LeCointe is directed to the bathroom, only to pass what we presume to be wives, sisters and daughters, kept to separate spheres and away from the supposedly male arena of workers’ struggle.
This gender dynamic is developed more blatantly in the case of Darcus Howe. As his partner Barbara Beese (played by Rochenda Sandall of recent Line of Duty fame) struggles to manage her home, work and political responsibilities, Howe is often consumed by the perspectives of James’ masterpiece The Black Jacobins.
And while McQueen has returned to his own roots with the Small Axe series, the internationalism of his previous work remains. Colonialism and its effects dominate the discourse of the activists as they highlight how seemingly disparate groups share a history and future in struggle.
Such overtly left-wing content is so rare in today’s culture that, when it is included, there’s a danger of it coming across as forced. But the ease with which he normalises the bluntness of the film’s political context speaks to McQueen’s immense skill. It is both in your face and entirely natural. The techniques he uses might be different to those of someone like Ken Loach’s, but in the case of Mangrove the result is similar: it is no more radical than life itself.
The pacing is inverted when it comes to portraying the community which blossomed in tandem with the Mangrove restaurant. Whether it’s the opening night celebratory dances, the evening sing-songs, or the partying at one of the early Notting Hill carnivals, here Steve McQueen takes his time.
As a result, a cast of characters are made real. A sense of togetherness through shared culture shines through. The unique importance of a Black-owned restaurant, which could serve as a base – “a home away from home” as Howe describes it – for a besieged immigrant community is masterfully brought to life.
It isn’t long, however, before the sense of emancipatory possibility emanating from the Mangrove is sharply punctuated.
We are shown one Police Constable Pulley launch into a racist tirade as he overlooks its success.
He mourns the supposed fact that the army isn’t as it was in the old days, that it won’t simply go in and deal with a Black community, he sees as overstepping its bounds. For Pulley, this warrants a return of the treatment meted out to the “Micks”.
And if McQueen is in no rush when showing the community spirit surrounding the Mangrove, neither does he speed through the brutality of the Metropolitan police.
“Ya wicked devil!” Crichlow shouts at them after one of their bloody raids. The acting depicts a full range of human emotion, but it is in these instances, where Crichlow is overwhelmed with an exasperated fury at his and his community’s treatment, that Shaun Parkes’ performance reaches its powerful zenith.
At each stage Crichlow attempts to fight within the system for justice. And at every turn he is rebuffed, a continued victim of systemic racism.
In one memorable scene, Howe passionately wins Crichlow to the need for a demonstration. “All development comes from self-movement” he argues, channelling the lessons of C.L.R. James. 1 Hoping that the white official sections of society will treat the Mangrove fairly is misguided; taking to the streets is difficult and full of risks, but it is the only way. “We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists of our own story,” as Jones-LeCointe later puts it.
Mass politics are difficult to capture on screen. The mainstream narratives we’re familiar with focus on one or two characters, and even pictures with big casts often revolve around a smaller subset. It is not hard to fathom why. Certainly, it’s cheaper and easier. But more important is how establishment history is the history of ‘great men’; the faceless little people don’t figure. Capitalism is a system of rugged individualism, and that has seeped its way into so much of our culture.
In different hands, therefore, the experience of the Mangrove Nine might have been shown through the eyes of Frank Crichlow alone; the reluctant hero who fights alongside a progressive lawyer – liberalism’s classic ‘great white hope’.
Such a depiction was unlikely from McQueen. He doesn’t go as far as Mike Leigh did with his epic about the Peterloo massacre of 1819, where Leigh seemed to be trying to make the movement itself the star character. Instead, Mangrove’s approach is encapsulated in Howe’s repeated insistence that those at the forefront of the fight were always “deeply rooted”.
It is a welcome tonic to lazy portrayals of rebellions where small groups do it all themselves. While Crichlow, Beese, Jones-LeCointe, Howe and more all lead – and are all at the centre of this movie – we are never left in any doubt that the fight is much larger than any one of them.
The Old Bailey
The Mangrove Nine were brought before the Old Bailey, a court usually reserved for the worst of crimes and not riotous behaviour. This fact wasn’t lost on the defendants. Whatever their fears, however, they didn’t allow themselves to be cowed.
They began by demanding an all-Black jury. Since a jury should be composed of one’s peers, the Nine argued, and due to the racist schism in British society, only those who were Black could possibly have the life experiences required to be considered ‘peers’. The request was rejected, but it set the tone of things to come.2
At every stage, while the British government insisted that the trial was solely a matter of ‘law and order’, they politicised the case, putting race front and centre.
Two of the defendants, Jones-LeCointe and Howe, self-represented themselves. The scenes in which they have the state in their crosshairs on the witness stands are further additions to the highlight reel. And as the Nine turned the courtroom into a spectacle, on the outside the leafleting, meetings and pickets continued apace.
History from Below
The campaign was historic, and would have been so even had they lost. As it happens, The Mangrove Nine won their case, with most of the defendants being acquitted altogether and only some convicted of lesser offences.
A cause for celebration if ever there was one. So says Crichlow to his companion Dolston as revellers party in the restaurant. He is met with a more sombre response, “We might have won the battle Frank, but we’ll see about the war”. For McQueen, there is no room for being naive; the truth – “joyous, painful… rain or shine” – must be told.
And Dolston was right, of course. Frank and the rest of the Nine were vindictively harassed by the Metropolitan police for decades after their victory. Indeed, over fifty years after the Mangrove restaurant first opened its doors the explosion of the Black Lives Matter protest movement in Britain was not only in solidarity with Black people experiencing state repression across the water. It was a reaction to the decades of institutional racism in the police and wider British society.
In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James tells the history of the Haitian Revolution – “the only successful slave revolt in history”. The brutality of the slave system in the Caribbean cannot be overstated. And yet, freedom was always a prospect:
“…nothing, however profitable, goes on forever. From the very momentum of their own development, colonial planters, French and British bourgeois were generating internal stresses and intensifying internal rivalries, moving blindly to explosions and conflicts which would shatter the basis of their dominance and create the possibility of emancipation.”
James is credited with writing the first history of the Haitian Revolution from below – from the perspective of those who were enslaved.
It might be on a much smaller scale, but Steve McQueen has done likewise. Mangrove is history from below, history how it should be told, history which helps keep alive for a new generation that “possibility of emancipation”.
- The quote in question does not come from The Black Jacobins as some reviews have reported, but from another later work by C.L.R James, Facing Reality. The latter was written at a time when James had slightly moved away from mass politics, something Darcus Howe later criticised. However, in Mangrove Howe mobilises this quote to illustrate the futility of relying on the system; to encourage self-activity.
- Paul Field, who co-wrote a biography on Darcus Howe, has stated that once the judge denied them this, the Nine used their peremptory challenges to maximise Black and white working class presence on the jury. Their attempt to select white working class jurors over those from the ‘more respectable’ middle classes wasn’t due to any naive notion that the former would necessarily be less racist. Rather, according to Field, they calculated that working class people would be more likely to believe their evidence of police brutality, and that whatever prejudices they held were not wholly unshakeable. Highlighting the class dimensions at play, Howe later wrote: “The British State could not convince whites to join them. Racism as a basis for the division of the British working class had taken a beating, particularly since our defence was based on the fact that the police were liars and should not be believed.“