Mangrove Flips the Script on Courtroom Dramas
I have never fallen in love with a courtroom drama. It’s the highest possible compliment, then, when I say that Mangrove left me head-over-heels for Steve McQueen, a director who had already left me slack-jawed more than once. His latest - the first entry in a five-film miniseries together titled Small Axe - takes the dull trappings of the British justice system and flips them on their head, exposing and exploiting them, rather than merely trying to paint over the boredom with cheap plot tricks and unrealistic “gotcha” trial moments. Mangrove bumps up against the same limitations as its subgenre forerunners, but McQueen imbues the small moments with so much humanity that he nearly transcends the limiting frame.
Mangrove is what Wesley Morris recently termed a “Side A / Side B” movie - you think it’s one thing, and then about an hour in, it turns into a totally different movie. It’s a unique structure that lends itself uncharacteristically well to the courtroom drama. Transition to the courtroom too early and you risk turning into Law & Order: Cinema (see, e.g., Marshall); transition too late, and you puncture an almost fully inflated balloon of tension, leaving a completely flat final act (see, e.g., Detroit). McQueen chops his film in half, each hour separated by a year in time: the events and the aftermath.
The opening 20 minutes of Mangrove brim with so much uninhibited life, with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera slithering through the West Indies group finding its own slice of happiness in England’s Notting Hill neighborhood, that McQueen makes you mad at the police as much for interrupting the cinematic exploration of a community seldom depicted as for the injustice of their barbaric behavior. Like the impossible task of keeping the lid on a boiling pot, the police return to Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) restaurant, Mangrove, over and over (and over) to harass and bully its Black owner and patrons, doing everything they can to snuff the determination of these people to simply live. But like that same boiling pot, steam escapes through even an millimeter of space, and it’s in discovering these tiny moments of spirit and defiance amid racist brutality that McQueen excels.
All courtroom dramas must eventually shift to the dreary browns and greys that mark our halls of justice, and so too does Mangrove move to the Old Bailey, leaping a year in time after Crichlow, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and six others are arrested and brought in on trumped up charges after the police violently interrupt a lawful protest. Howe and Jones-LeCointe opt to represent themselves, simultaneously taking control of their own futures and retaining their voices in favor of handing them over to a barrister.
Side B of Mangrove is marked by a simple choice: the unrivaled importance of the Mangrove 9’s behaviour in and approach to a potential sham-trial. Rather than submit to the norms of a centuries old justice system, the group instead puts that very institution itself on trial, disrupting the judge at every turn. Just as the police used intimidation tactics to make them feel terror in their own homes, the Mangrove 9 seek to make every person uncomfortable who once felt at home in a racist justice system. For police officers, judges, and white jurors, the courts have long been a refuge of solace. Mangrove disrupts that. It’s a criticism and upending of the structures that impose a rigidity on our backwards society, rather than an attempt to find justice from within them.
Wright will justifiably receive praise, but Mangrove succeeds in part because of its tireless ensemble. Kirby realistically drags Howe from the quiet leader on Side A to his thunderous final speech. Parkes carries so much tension in his body as the reluctant civil rights hero who merely wanted to operate a restaurant that we nearly feel its release along with him in a moment of powerful catharsis. Jack Lowden plays a minor role as an attorney well, and Rochenda Sandall confronts and interrogates the personal cost of becoming movement figures as Barbara Beese.
Mangrove indulges in a few courtroom drama clichés, and despite its resistance, can’t help but follow the same well-worn rise and fall of its predecessors. But unlike many that have come before, it seeks neither victory nor comfort in the decision of a broken system. Mangrove seeks a larger justice yet to come, but for now, McQueen’s retelling at least does right by the Mangrove 9.