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Small Axe: Mangrove (first of four episodes)
BBC 1 Sundays 9pm November 21, 29 and December 6)
STEVE MCQUEEN’S five-film anthology about the vicissitudes of black British life between the 1960s and 80s, represents a momentous event in British film and television history.
It kicked off on November 15 with his film on the infamous Mangrove trial at the Old Bailey.
The Mangrove Nine were black activists put on trial in 1970 for allegedly inciting a riot at a demonstration against the police targeting of the black-owned Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, west London. This episode centres on Mangrove’s activist owner Frank Crichlow.
The trial lasted 55 days and resulted in their acquittal on the most serious charges. The trial became the first judicial acknowledgement of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the police force and society at large.
McQueen recreates that climactic period with meticulous historical accuracy and dramatic panache. A group of young black activists were inspired by studying The Black Jacobins, CLR James’s history of the revolution made to end slavery in Haiti in 1804.
They were also much influenced by the Black Panther movement in the US and decided that they were no longer willing to play the passive victim role and endure the harassment and endemic and vicious racism they faced daily.
Once they became organised and vociferous in their demands for justice, the police and legal establishment decided to make an example of them. There were repeated and brutal raids on the Mangrove and continuous harassment of anyone associated with it, alongside the harassment of black youth living in the area.
When that didn’t cow them into submission, and after they had organised a demonstration to the local police station, they were accused of causing a riot and put on trial at the Old Bailey – the usual court for trying murderers and other dangerous criminals.
The main protagonists are based on real people and much of the dialogue in the trial scenes is taken verbatim from records made at the time. It is astonishing to recall how pernicious and widespread racism then was and – despite the virus of racism still present in our society – just how much progress has been made since.
That progress would not have been possible without the courageous fight of the Mangrove Nine, their disciplined organisation and their clear political demands. We can look forward to the other films in the series.
As McQueen says: “These are the untold stories that make up our nation”. It is indeed an ignored and forgotten history, one that needed to be told. McQueen does that and more.
“When I started doing Small Axe, people were dying, and I thought, ‘I have to do it now,’ but a lot of people said to me: ‘Why did you not do this at the beginning of your film career?’ But I couldn’t have because I didn’t have the maturity then, I didn’t have the distance, I didn’t have the strength. I needed to do other things before I could come back to me.”
But he did it and has here produced moving, eloquent films that portray that poignant reality for black citizens living in Britain but without bitterness, exaggeration or didacticism. A must-watch series.
n Also of interest is the film How the Mangrove Nine Won, available to watch online until December 15. Real life defendant Altheia Jones-LeCointe and defence barrister Ian Macdonald QC give the fascinating background to that iconic trial.
This documentary is right on time as the Black Lives Matter movement reclaims the hidden history and victories of people of colour globally. The showing of this film is, at the same time, a fundraiser for the continuing struggle of the Haitian movement to defend their black republic.
How the Mangrove Nine Won, a film by Global Women’s Strike and Women of Colour GWS, chaired by Selma James. Details: globalwomenstrike.net/event-how-the-mangrove-nine-won.
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