Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 03, 2020 8:15 pm 
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STEVE MCQUEEN: MANGROVE (2020) - virtual NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

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Mangrove tells this true story of The Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970. The trial that followed was the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police.

I began my NYFF 2020 coverage by declaring my earlier prejudice against this filmmaker was wiped away by his Lovers Rock, which was chosen as the opening night film. I'd admired his debut feature Hunger (NYFF 2008), but felt worn down by his Shame (NYFF 2011), then beaten over the head and tortured by his 12 Years a Slave (NYFF 2013). With his mini-series "Small Axe" I see a new McQueen. He's still intense, and Lover's Rock is an awful lot of one kind of thing (dancing), but the two-hour Margrove, set in 1970 (opener of McQueen's 5-part "Small Axe" TV series, opening night film at the London Film Festival) is wonderfully economical too. This one is about police brutality and racism, so it couldn't be more relevant to 2020 America.

The trial that occupies the second half of the two-hour Mangrove historically led to a first "acknowledgement" of "behavior motivated by racial hatred" in London's police forces. It's a highly entertaining, technically brilliant trial sequence that can stand up to traditional examples of the familiar genre. But it's not exactly traditional. The "Mangrove Nine" on trial for "riot, affray and assault" at the Old Bailey, the court, as noted, reserved for the most severe offenses (where the film appears to have been shot) , are all of West Indian origin; the gallery is full of West Indians. Two of the defendants, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) act in their own defense, and they do so stunningly. The presiding Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), a lordly aristo who rules his court with dictatorial condescension, winds up pointing to the identified racially motivated behavior, which Peter Bradshaw calls in his admiring Guardian review of this film a "spectacular and unprecedented judicial admission".

The trial section contains plenty of speeches, and several stunning cross examinations, notably of the white racist Police Constable Frank Pulley by Darcus Howe. It's much condensed, since the trial, the Judge declares, took eleven weeks. But it still gives a feeling of thoroughness, as when the judge begins to read out the charges of each of the nine accused individually and get the jury's decision for each.

The first half, or nearly half, equally rich in another way, serves two purposes. It amply illustrates the racial bias in the police in their constant attacks on the restaurant. And a little moment with a rookie shows how "get a black man" is a game they're all taught to play, on "bad apple" interpretation possible. Above all this introduces us to the people, first of all to the passionately angry, brooding Frank Crichlow and his Mangrove restaurant, subject to violent raids from the late sixties, then to many other characters, including the skinny, long-necked Altheia with her Black Panther radicalism and her sing-song island accent; the high-pitched voiced Darcus with his big, light-skinned London-accented wife; the fat cook, Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon), a regular in every restaurant interior scene; the older men Crichlow plays dice and cards with; and many others.

The raids are sudden and ugly, and when the police arrest Darcus he is returned to his own badly beaten, for no reason. Thus the West Indians of Notting Hill decide to stage a march and demonstration, up to the police station, leading to their violent confrontation and the arrests. Lest we think no white person is seen positively here, there is the young, outspoken liberal-left Scottish barrister Ian McDonald (Jack Lowden), who figures prominently, if not very effectively, in the trial. Not so much the odious snooty prosecution lawyer, or the older one for Frank Crichlow who tries to persuade him midway to plead guilty and abandon the others.

This is a high relevant story, but it represents a world that's clearly not 2020 America. Imagine: the black men are confident of their rights as citizens and residents. They they dare to be bold and confrontational toward the police. They aren't afraid of them. The police are armed only with batons. Big, big differences.

Mangrove, 126 mins., made for BBC, was to have debuted at Cannes, I think, but instead had its debut at the virtual New York Film Festival Sept. 25, 2020; shows also at London; and will be available with the other four parts of the "Small Axe" miniseries Nov. 20, 2020 in the US. An Amazon Studios release.

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