Earlier this year Aaron Sorkin gave us “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a brilliant fictionalization of the story of the anti-Vietnam War activists who were put on trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention — a trial that often took on a circus atmosphere. It’s one of the very best movies of 2020.
Now the gifted storyteller Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” “Widows”) delivers an equally compelling dramatization of an historic moment familiar to far fewer Americans: “Small Axe: Mangrove,” which dramatizes the tale of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black activists in the Notting Hill neighborhood of West London who were put on trial in 1970 on charges of inciting a riot — a trial that often took on a circus atmosphere.
This, too, is one of the very best movies of 2020.
“Mangrove” is the first of five “Small Axe” films from McQueen set in London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. (The title comes from the African proverb that says, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”) With “Try Me” by Bob Marley & the Wailers setting the tone for this docudrama-style period piece, we’re introduced to Shaun Parkes’ Trinidad-born Frank Critchlow, who has recently opened a Caribbean restaurant called the Mangrove in Notting Hill — a place that becomes a focal point for West Indians to gather together to eat, drink, dance, listen to live music and share a sense of community.
The racist Police Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell, suitably loathsome) is having none of this. Pulley calls law-abiding protesting Blacks “thugs” and says they “should be put down.” He conducts brutal raids on the Mangrove with no cause, and when a new officer joins Pulley’s squad, the rookie is pushed into an “initiation” in which a random Black individual is chased down, beaten and held in jail. (Pulley is as memorably despicable as corrupt movie cops such as James Cromwell’s Capt. Dudley Smith in “L.A. Confidential” and Ed Harris’ Detective Sgt. Remy Bressant in “Gone Baby Gone.”)
Malachi Kirby is a standout as the activist and writer Darcus Howe, who hosts meetings at the Mangrove, as is Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) in a powerful and passionate performance as Altheia Jones-Lecointe, a real-life leader of the British Black Panther movement. After an anti-police discrimination rally goes sideways and clashes ensue, nine protesters are arrested and put on trial for crimes that could result in sentences of a decade or longer. McQueen stages the often intense and heated courtroom scenes with pitch-perfect camera angles and cuts that put us right there in the middle of the proceedings, as various defendants become not “victims, but protagonists of our own story,” as Altheia Jones-Lecointe puts it.
With infectious tunes such as “54-46” by Toots and the Maytals and “Skinhead Moonstomp” by Symarip powering the soundtrack, costumes and production design perfectly capturing the era and a bounty of powerhouse performances from the ensemble cast, “Mangrove” is an invaluable work enlightening us on an important chapter in Black history across the pond.
The “Small Axe” series will continue with “Lovers Rock” on Nov. 27, “Red, White and Blue” on Dec. 4, “Alex Wheatle” on Dec. 11 and “Education” on Dec. 18.