Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Is Pretty Damn Good So Far

The first film in Steve McQueen’s new Amazon Prime anthology chronicles the struggle for racial justice in Britain with the 1970s Mangrove Nine trial. It’s a wonderful achievement and valuable popular education on the British struggles against racist policing.

From "Mangrove," a part of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of five films. (Kieron McCarron / Amazon Prime Video).

Small Axe, directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Widows), is a new, five-part Amazon series that’s meant to be seen as five full movies about the West Indian community in Great Britain in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. It reflects McQueen’s own experiences growing up in London as the son of a Trinidadian mother and a Grenadian father. The first entry, “Mangrove,” is pretty damn good and promises admirable things to come in the rest of the series.

I went into “Mangrove” cold, having read nothing about it, and was a little uncertain about how to take it at first. It’s gorgeous-looking and with a great reggae score — the title of the series is taken from a Caribbean proverb that inspired the Bob Marley and the Wailers song, “Small Axe,” featuring the line, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.”

But “Mangrove” takes a while to become propulsive, immersed as it is in extraordinary period and cultural detail. It’s about a man named Frank Crichlow (brilliantly played by Shaun Parkes) who opens a Trinidadian all-night restaurant and cafe in the Notting Hill section of 1968 London called the Mangrove. Crichlow has had a rough history — his last place, the Rio, got him no end of police harassment and was shut down for illegal activities such as gambling and drug-taking on the premises. So he doesn’t want any trouble this time; he just wants to run his little restaurant which provides nothing but spicy food for those who like it.

Well, if you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you know as soon as there’s a harassed, hardworking character who just wants to do one ordinary thing in this world, he’s not going to be allowed to do it. One small dream equals one thwarted dream. Them’s the rules for most, and not just in movies.

Of course, many of you already know from this meager description that this is a film about the Mangrove Nine, whose trial on charges of inciting to riot in 1970 was a landmark civil rights event in British legal history, culminating in an unprecedented admission of racism among the British police force. The trial that takes up the second half of the film is riveting and keeps you on a knife’s edge throughout, as arrogant, bewigged white legal authorities face off against black defendants in a monstrously unequal struggle.

How you go up against such concentrated power is a question that never stops concerning us, and the answer, though always different in its details, tends to be broadly the same: a kind of intelligently inventive and fearless counteraggression that includes the possibility of total self-sacrifice. That last part certainly is discouraging.

The first half of “Mangrove,” which seems deliberately meandering, is on reflection quite artfully constructed. It mirrors the way the restaurant slowly becomes a political cause against Crichlow’s explicit wishes. His place is repeatedly raided by police on trumped-up charges, a systematic attempt to shut him down on purely racist grounds, led by a notoriously bigoted neighborhood cop named Police Constable Pulley. He’s played by actor Sam Spruell with creepy, stunted self-righteousness.

While Crichlow is preoccupied, local intellectuals and left-wing political organizers are coming to regard his restaurant as their de facto headquarters, which only intensifies police hostility. They include in major roles Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a leader of the British Black Panther Party, and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), a member of the British Black Panthers in a relationship with writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), the main political theorist of the nine. Trinidadian revolutionary C. L. R. James (Derek Griffiths) is portrayed in brief scenes frequenting the Mangrove, and Howe is shown to be an avid reader of his most famous book, The Black Jacobins.

With his mantra of wanting no trouble, Crichlow’s secondary struggle, after keeping his restaurant going, is staying out of political involvements. Both are in vain. The community rises to defend the Mangrove from police destruction, and the resulting demonstration, designed to be peaceful, is countered aggressively by the police and descends into chaos. This leads to predictable charges of “riot and affray” against the supposed nine “ringleaders,” including Crichlow.

But as the trial begins, the defendants are unable to find a unified strategy. Most opt for traditional lawyers who are themselves in disagreement about how best to handle the case, including a young Scottish barrister Ian MacDonald (Jack Lowden) who’s gleefully in favor of “winding up” the judge and challenging the authority of the court in ways reminiscent of the Chicago Seven. Jones-LeCointe and Howe choose to defend themselves as a way of having greater access to the procedural powers of the court, such as being allowed to cross-examine witnesses and address the judge directly.

Crichlow’s struggle with this role of political revolutionary that he has no desire to play leads him at one point to contemplate pleading guilty with the possibility of lesser legal consequences, for the simple reason that he can’t face the maximum of ten years in jail. His anguish is dramatized by McQueen in increasingly beautiful shots.

In one harrowing sequence after a group outburst against the clearly unjust actions of the judge, he and Howe are roughed up by white guards escorting them out of the courtroom. Thrown into a cell, Crichlow rages at the guards, one sneering through the peephole, by throwing himself repeatedly against the door and shouting, “Wicked, wicked men!” — a line that’s not easy to pull off, but Parkes does it. A low-angle shot aimed up at Crichlow’s torso as he beats on the door, shouting, has him silhouetted in almost blinding yellow-white light.

It’s my favorite kind of shot, in that I have no idea why it’s so dramatically effective — it just is. Directors have to have that kind of intuitive sense of what’s right, of what works in ways that can’t be easily explained, which is why it’s a mystery so many people think they can be directors.

Another example of McQueen’s creative daring is the shot of Crichlow silently awaiting the verdict with the rest of the Mangrove Nine. Excruciating tension is conveyed by showing him in a sharply tilted close-up against a green backdrop, dragging deeply on a cigarette. Doesn’t sound like much, perhaps, but it’s tough to pull off the canted shot — Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed were good at it, and now so is McQueen, but most directors are wise to leave it alone.

Just how close the material is to McQueen’s experience is indicated by McQueen’s description in an Observer interview of his family’s connection to the events portrayed in “Mangrove”:

“My father’s friend was a guy called Rhodan Gordon [played in the film by Nathaniel Martello-White], who was one of the Mangrove Nine,” the director says. “People were dealing with PTSD. People were dealing with the after effects of that trial in many ways. And the [ongoing] police harassment. Police were constantly harassing them. . . . But a lot of people didn’t know about it, especially in the broad public, because [local] people were still under some kind of a threat, to be honest.”

McQueen seems highly conscious that these five films are going to constitute an education for a lot of people. And this first film of the series is so well done it seems incredible that there are going to be four more rolling out weekly, a sudden embarrassment of riches.