Small Axe: Mangrove movie review (2020)

In 1970, when the Mangrove Nine went on trial, they were tried at The Old Bailey, a court normally reserved for more serious crimes like those against the government. The Crown is sending a message; refusing to “know your place” in White society is a form of treason. “Mangrove” doesn’t treat McDonald as the White Savior type an American movie would have definitely portrayed him. For starters, Howe and Jones-Lecointe represent themselves in court with McDonald’s guidance, giving voice to the defendants and allowing them to cross-examine witnesses. Lowden plays McDonald as a co-conspirator gleefully sticking it to the stuffy old, outdated and proper British court system—his eyes practically twinkle with mischief at one point. Yet the most satisfying takedowns of the system come from the two members who represent themselves. Even the judge who does everything in his power to prevent a fair trial can only bend the law so far, leaving Howe to deliver extremely satisfying blows through the loopholes and rules originally designed to keep people like him down.

“Mangrove” is full of memorable characters, from Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon), the big, beautiful cook who ranks on Critchlow and is never seen without a toothpick in her mouth, to the Mangrove patrons who stand by its owner’s side. These people are not docile victims. They fight back in numerous scenes. Critchlow argues with Pc Pulley whenever he shows up. The mother of one of the police’s initiation victims explodes with a level of righteous, violent fury that made me fear for her life. None of the Mangrove Nine look for a white knight to ride in and save them. So many times in movies of this type, Black and brown people play supporting roles in their own salvation or defense. To see them in active roles was refreshing and uplifting.

Though Wright, Kilby, Sandall and Lowden turn in fine work, the heart of “Mangrove” beats in Shaun Parkes’ performance. As a man older than his activist cohorts, he carries the weight of extra years of battle fatigue. Though proud and strong, those scrapes with the law and their losing outcomes come to bear on him. Parkes balances these two halves of Critchlow’s persona in two very upsetting scenes, one of which takes place in a holding cell and is shot by McQueen through a small slot. The slot serves as a callback to a prior scene involving visibility during Pc Pulley’s testimony. The other scene occurs when Critchlow is on the verge of pleading guilty and surrendering to the corrupt legal system that has already ground his resolve down to its very nubs. In both, Parkes’ performance is harrowing and heartbreaking.

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