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The Rise of Black Power in Britain

Letitia Wright in Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove.”

With striking parallels to the story Aaron Sorkin told—very problematically—in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” brings to life a much more obscure historical struggle against judicial injustice. This is the first in a series of five films McQueen made for the BBC about Black life in England. The Mangrove was a restaurant Trinidad immigrant Frank Crichlow opened in Notting Hill in west London in 1968, home to many other Caribbean immigrants who took advantage of coming from a former colony to start a new life. With no other aspirations except to serve up curry dishes and a congenial social gathering for fellow Blacks, Crichlow soon found the British cops bent on destroying his business and making life miserable for people of color. McQueen dedicated the film to George Floyd in open recognition of the black struggle internationally.

McQueen calls his anthology Small Axe, inspired by a not very well-known Bob Marley song that includes this lyric:

So if you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Ready to cut you down, (well sharp)
To cut you down

From the opening minutes of “Mangrove”, you are immersed in Caribbean culture with a stirring soundtrack featuring not only Marley but other great reggae musicians like Toots and the Maytals. In the film’s opening moments, we see a grinning Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) rising up victoriously from a poker game with cash in hand. He strides down the main street in Notting Hill with the strains of Marley’s “Try Me” following his footsteps. The net effect is to identify a time, a place and a character in the same way of John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever” backed up by the strains of “Stayin’ Alive.”

On this, the opening day of Mangrove, Crichlow’s puts a sign “Black Ownership” in the window, then enters the kitchen to give his chefs the marching orders. They will cook fish curry, goat curry, mutton curry and his mother’s crab dumplings. McQueen was careful enough to direct his actors to use an authentic Caribbean patois but clearly enough so that anybody could follow the dialog. As is often the case with British films featuring characters from a working-class subculture, you practically need subtitles. None were necessary here.

The scene then shifts to C.L.R. James’s (Derek Griffiths) living room, where he and his friends are watching news coverage of Darcus Howe, his nephew and a leading activist. His words engage with British realities about the need to resist white supremacy but they would have sounded the same coming as Stokely Carmichael’s mouth that year in the U.S.A.

Moments later, we see a couple of British cops harassing Crichlow in the restaurant, with a cop named Dixon, the film’s counterpart to the cop who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, calling him a “black bastard.” This is the opening salvo in a series of confrontations that repeatedly occur until a police riot occurs, with obvious parallels to Chicago, 1968.

In the next scene, we see the dotted line connecting “Mangrove” to “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Black Panther leader Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) is speaking to a selected group of trade unionists about the solidarity the Panthers could offer to an immigrant membership. Unlike the more lumpen leadership of the American Panthers, she was a Trinidadian physician and research scientist. Not long after she learned about the police raids on the Mangrove, she offered assistance to Crichlow, who held her at arm’s length because his main interest was solely in running a restaurant. It was only when the cops became such a threat to his livelihood and a blatant instrument of white supremacy that he collaborated with both her and Darcus Howe to stave them off.

The film climaxes with a courtroom drama that is reminiscent of the Chicago 8. I say eight advisedly since there are striking parallels with the 8th defendant Bobby Seale. Like Seale, Darcus Howe, Altheia Jones and the other seven defendants serve as their own attorneys, a choice not granted to Seale. As was the case with Judge Hoffman, the British judge is solidly on the side of the cops but in a manner more icily patronizing than growlingly aggressive. The trial was a major showdown between the forces of law and disorder and the British Black population. McQueen did a great service to both his countrymen and the world by recreating this vital part of the race/class struggle.

I say this as someone who has not exactly fallen in love with his films. I found “Hunger,” a film about the IRA hunger strike to be sadistic porn. His next, “Twelve Years a Slave,” won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2013, a film whose chief interest I described as “depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment.” For reasons I don’t quite understand, McQueen seems to identify drama with violent conflict. In “Mangrove,” not only is there ongoing violence of cops attacking the Mangrove but scenes that depict his Black characters almost at each other’s throats. For example, Darcus Howe’s partner Barbara Beese lashes out at him as a detached intellectual for reading C.L.R. James’s “The Black Jacobins.” I would have preferred to see them sharing what brought them together. You get the same kind of bitter recriminations as Crichlow tries to fend off Altheia Jones’s offers of solidarity. Even with these reservations, I still regard “Mangrove” as a real cinematic breakthrough.

For background on how the Mangrove 9 handled themselves in the courtroom, I recommend a Verso blog by Ife Thompson titled “The Mangrove 9 and the Radical Lawyering Tradition”. It made another important connection between the American and British Panthers:

[Darcus] Howe and [Altheia] Jones-Lecointe, informed by the precedent set out by American Black Panthers reading of the 14th amendment of the American Constitution, demanded an all-Black jury. Howe appealed to ancient rights enshrined in Magna Carta as the legal basis of his call to be tried by a Black jury. They further moved the trial to another level by politically vetting potential jurors, asking them what they understood by terms “Black power” and which newspapers they read. Eventually, the Old Bailey Judge intervened and promptly dismissed these legal arguments from the defence. Nonetheless, in the meantime they had dismissed a total of 63 jurors, each defendant used their right to dismiss seven potential jurors, ensuring that at least two of the twelve jurors were Black.

“Mangrove” can be seen on Amazon Prime, as well as future installments in the Small Axe anthology.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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