Yesterday I finally saw a good portion of Steve McQueen‘s “Small Axe” quintet — specifically Mangrove, Red White and Blue and Lover’s Rock. (I’ve yet to watch Alex Wheatle, which I’m been told is the least of the five, and Education.) I was delighted to be finally sinking into the Big Three. McQueen is such a masterful filmmaker. He elevates material simply by focusing, framing and sharpening. His eye (visual choices) and sense of rhythm are impeccable. This, I was muttering to myself, is ace-level filmmaking….this is what it’s all about.
I was hugely impressed by all three, but especially by Mangrove, a gripping, well-throttled political drama which echoes and parallels Aaron Sorkin‘s Trial of the Chicago 7.
Both are about (a) landmark trials involving police brutality in the general time frame of the late ’60s and early ’70s, (b) activist defendants and flame-fanning media coverage, (c) an imperious, disapproving judge (Alex Jennings is McQueen’s Frank Langella), (d) a passionate barrister for the defense (Jack Lowden as a kind of British Bill Kuntsler), and (e) a decisive verdict or narrative aftermath that exposed institutional bias.
Mangrove (Amazon, currently streaming) is primarily about the late Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner-operator of a neighborhood-friendly Notting Hill restaurant that served spicy food, attracted a cutting-edge clientele (locals, journalists, activists, Jimi Hendrix) and became a kind of community nerve center for political hey-hey.
Racist British cops raided the Mangrove 12 times between January ’69 and July ’70. A “hands off the Mangrove” protest march happened in August ’70. The event ended in violence and the arrests of nine protesters (the “Mangrove Nine”), who were tried in the Old Bailey. They were almost entirely acquitted of all charges.
Everything about the 128-minute Mangrove is perfectly fused and balanced just so — the brilliant script by McQueen and Alastair Siddons, Shabier Kirchner‘s cinematography, Chris Dickens‘ editing and just about every performance (Parkes, Jennings, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Lowden, Rochenda Sandall, Nathaniel Martello-White , Darren Braithwaite, Sam Spruell).
The decisive way in which McQueen focuses on Crichlow/Parkes when the jury verdicts are finally read — staying on him, never cutting away, drilling down on the feeling — is one of the most riveting courtroom shots I’ve ever seen.
I was saying to myself that if Mangrove was a Best Picture contender, it would absolutely be right at the top of my list. Actually it is at the top of my list, except Amazon hasn’t categorized any of the “Small Axe” films (which were aired as a British miniseries) as features, and is aiming them, award-wise, at Emmy voters. But Mangrove is easily good enough to stand alongside Nomadland, Mank, Trial of the Chicago 7 and any other highly-rated 2020 film you might want to celebrate.
Mangrove is a major, grade-A motion picture — angrily alive, emotionally and atmospherically vibrant and urgent, heartfelt and rooted in real-deal history and hurt. And yet Amazon has decided, for reasons that no doubt make sense from a certain perspective, that it doesn’t belong the Best Picture competish. For me Mangrove is the second major 2020 film that warrants the top prize but which no one will be considering, the other being Roman Polanski‘s J’Accuse (i.e., An Officer and a Spy), which I saw earlier this year and went totally nuts for.