As a White Dude with a full deck of privilege and a shitload of unlearning to do when it comes to an effort at anti-racism, I acknowledge that there’s always going to be imperfection, at best, in my understanding of the Black Experience. Too many people like me use that as an excuse to not even try, of course, preferring the comfort of a bubble in which ignoring racism is hardly ever recognized in and of itself as a racist act. As a White Dude, part of me resides inextricably in this bubble regardless of my physical location. There’s quite an echo in here. And while I do recognize that ignoring racism is itself a contribution to racism — of course it is — I’m still undoubtedly one of those unthinking contributors. And admitting this puts me no closer to our aforementioned understanding. Nine out of ten attempts to place myself outside of the bubble are too weak to even perforate it, and the tenth is a noble failure.
Amongst those measures of not-enough is the discovery, experience, discussion and championing of Black Art. This is too easy and not impactful enough to be considered “putting in the work” for us White Dudes, or to count as allyship in any meaningful sense. So I’m gonna sound really, really desperate to make a grand point here when I turn heel to assert that it’s also not nothing, because not nothing is hardly the bar we should be striving to clear. But when discovering, experiencing, discussing and championing something as vital as Mangrove, even this most passive engagement can result in challenging questions of the sort that are typically drowned out in the din of the benighted bubble.
Put more simply: you won’t come out of Mangrove (or any film) magically woke, but if you’re dozing off a bit, Steve McQueen is here to open your eyes wide. As part one of McQueen’s ambitious five-part anthology Small Axe, the true story of the “Mangrove Nine” focuses on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), owner of the Notting Hill restaurant The Mangrove, which becomes the primary haven for Black Londoners in a community historically hostile towards them. Crichlow is somewhat reluctant at first, wanting only to run a restaurant that serves spicy food. But soon The Mangrove, as noted by Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), “doesn’t belong to Frank anymore.” It’s a community symbol, one that the police raid and loot and vandalize and raid again for no reason at all besides the belief that Notting Hill is supposed to be another of these perfectly-homogenous little bubbles.
Structurally, the first half of Mangrove intentionally flitters between joy and horror with brutal rapidity. People are dancing, singing, cooking and eating in the restaurant an instant before they’re being slammed up against the kitchen wall. Joy-horror-joy-horror-joy-horror. It’s an effective technique, one we wrote about previously in the context of The Leftovers; it makes even more sense here because it mirrors the mindset the Mangrove patrons are forced to adopt, having to expect the worst to descend at any moment. The second part of Mangrove becomes something else (which we’ll discuss momentarily), but the numb stupor brought about by this opening hour is what lingers after the credits roll. Those credits mention that Frank Crichlow ran the Mangrove for nearly twenty more years after the events of this film, and at no point did these sudden raids really subside.
How do you have the strength to make and maintain a space like that? That — as a White Dude — was the question I sat with on my comfortable couch after this movie ended. At first I was simply in awe of Crichlow, Howe, Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) and the rest of the Mangrove Nine, and of course I still am in awe. I was ashamed to have never heard of the Mangrove Nine, flabbergasted at the dishearteningly few films that specifically address racism in the UK, guilt-ridden to be able to sit on this comfortable couch without having to sit on the edge of it awaiting a sudden pivot from joy to horror. The question of space began to seem like everything, because how can you live without a space to call your own? This idea of having to create that from nothing and then fight for it on a daily basis is that part of the Black Experience I will never fully grasp, nor would anyone born into a privileged bubble.
It applies to the Black Artist, and specifically to Steve McQueen, too: after crafting such a harrowing, unflinching experience with Mangrove, how do you possibly have the strength to make four more films in the Small Axe series? Creating that space, maintaining it…this is an artistic achievement to be in awe of, yes, but almost certainly one of those increasingly-rare instances of brilliant art arising from the real pain of the artist. McQueen has made very good films before, from the one-two punch of Hunger and Shame (both starring Michael Fassbender) to his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave; McQueen also made a pretty bad film, too, called Widows, which was still better than your typical heist-flick fare. Mangrove is in another league entirely, and I would’ve said it’s the best thing he’s ever done until Part 2 of Small Axe dropped. Lovers Rock is a different beast altogether, also brilliant but tender where Mangrove is necessarily brash. So suffice it to say that Small Axe sees McQueen coming into status as one of our most important filmmakers, full stop.
The back half of Mangrove pivots into a courtroom drama, and despite somewhat familiar beats here, the efficacy of these sequences is still miles ahead of similar dramas. Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7, which in a vacuum gets by on impressive dialogue alone, ends up looking utterly sophomoric up against the same beats in Mangrove. The most powerful moment in Chicago 7 centers on the forcible silencing of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but that sequence only turns into an opportunity for a white character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to have a noble moment in speaking out against such injustice. The Mangrove Nine have a white lawyer on their side, too, but Mangrove is able to craft him as someone who’s simultaneously passionate about the fight but also not a white savior.
Again, while I don’t purport to have bettered myself simply by sitting on my couch and watching Mangrove, it undoubtedly taught me something. This is not enough and also not nothing. It’s not enough because Mangrove could easily take place today instead of a literal half-century ago, so few are the steps we’ve taken toward equality. And it’s only not nothing if it is a first step, learning that leads to action. It only matters if not nothing becomes something. With time and effort — if I can be permitted to bastardize this anthology’s title reference — the small axe will eventually cut down the big tree. Or pop a bubble.
Small Axe is now streaming on Amazon Prime.