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Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.
We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, and how in which they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.
Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.
Chris McNicholl wrote José with the following, which I expect will be of interest:
I just finished listening to your podcast on Small Axe. I enjoyed it very much, and I’m looking forward to rewatching it again in light of some of your observations, especially the image compositions. I’ll make a couple of observations though. I think the young female protagonist somewhere in the film makes a passing reference to Ogun in a discussion with the owner of the restaurant. Well, i think that’s the cultural origin of the film’s title, and not only the Bob Marley song. Ogun in Afro-Caribbean derived religions is the god of iron and metals. A god of war and justice and protector of the community. And along with swords and machetes and other weapons, he is sometimes depicted with a small axe protruding from his head. He is the guy who opens the way by clearing away injustices.
On the subject of Darcus Howe. He is actually C.L. R. James’ nephew. And James lived in Darcus’ basement in Brixton. It’s quite a famous basement, actually. Stuart Hall and Edward Said visited him there and did interviews with him. And I know the government installed one of those Blue Plaques honouring where he lived in South London. Also, do you recall the scene where Darcus is lying on the sofa in the living room reading a text and his wife or girlfriend slaps it out of his hands and says I’ve had enough of these black jacobins, or something to that effect? Well, he is reading James’ famous text on the Haitian revolution, entitled The Black Jacobins. (see the attachment). That text in itself has an interesting history, given that it was first written as a play around 1936 and was staged shortly after in the West End with Paul Robeson playing Toussaint L’Ouverture before James worked it up into a book.
Lastly Roy Stafford has written a really interesting introduction to Small Axe, which you can read here:
and also a really informative piece on Mangrove, which can be accessed here:
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.