Small Axe: Mangrove Movie Review
The first of five films in the Small Axe series by director Steve McQueen, Mangrove is a patient and extraordinarily well acted exploration of racism in 1970s London and a depiction of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, who challenged in court the injustices they faced at the hands of local police.
Mangrove is the antidote to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of a Chicago 7, a serious Oscar contender that many, including this critic, consider to be too heavy on smarmy writing and overinflated personalities to carry much emotional heft. With Mangrove, which has a very similar plot, McQueen lets his story and characters unfold organically, relying on his actors to really sink their teeth into the roles.
The end result is a much more believable and humanistic experience that stands among the year’s better movies.
The differentiated focus means you’ll need some patience before Mangrove really picks up steam and finds it footing. Though Shaun Parks, playing the embattled owner of the Mangrove restaurant (an eatery appealing largely to black people that is repeatedly targeted by the police), commands attention from the first scene, McQueen is content establishing his various characters as they do somewhat mundane things for quite a while. The story is a little more meandering than I would normally like, but McQueen pulls off the slow build rather well.
Even still, Mangrove is much more effective once it moves into trial mode; with the proper focus, energy, and urgency, McQueen is really able to hone his craft while continuing to allow his actors to flex their muscles. In addition to Parks, Letitia Wright delivers a fiery performance as a member of the Black Panthers.
Mangrove may be too slow moving early on to work for everyone, but it is a masterfully envisioned piece of filmmaking. It may not have the Chicago 7’s surface-level entertainment value, but it’s a much more moving, powerful, and believable drama.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.