Centring on the 1960s-80s ordeal of the Mangrove 9, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove has been met with rave reviews pretty much exclusively across the board. Many younger Black people won’t have known much of Notting Hill’s significance beyond its carnival, (as well as its ridiculously over-priced housing), and McQueen’s offering is a powerful reminder of this overlooked era in our history.
For a film centred on historical events, though, it didn’t really feel like history. Instead, it felt all too familiar to have been taken from decades before.
‘Powell for PM’, a sign on a wall in the opening moments of the film reads, referring to the openly racist and extremely influential MP Enoch Powell.
While the current British Prime Minister hasn’t quite reached the popularity levels of Enoch, he certainly does love the odd racist remark. He even offered his editorial stamp of approval to a writer buddy of his who lamented the downfall of Powell, longing for the good old days of his prime.
Young Black men are still being told they ‘fit the description’ to this day, as was the case in Mangrove.
If that wasn’t enough, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights just sneak-released a report that confirms what we all have long known – the vast majority of Black people don’t trust the system for equal treatment. Just as the characters in Mangrove laughed when asked to put faith in the British justice system. In the words of Frank Crichlow “The system crooked as a damn ram’s horn”.
The list of similarities goes on.
All this has culminated in one damning reality – the wins we may have seen over the last few decades – and the fruits of the battles valiantly fought and won by our elders – haven’t yet convinced subsequent generations of Black people in Britain that England is our home home.
Perhaps they were never supposed to.
The last conversation of significant length in the film, between Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes) and his good friend Dalston ‘Dol’ Isaacs (Gary Beadle) as the pair stand outside the Mangrove, brings this message home loud and clear.
Frank: We have three jury inside of there and they celebrating – with us!
Dalston: You told me.
Frank: I never see the like!
Dalston: We might have won the battle Frank, but we’ll see about the war.
(pauses) I can’t suffer another winter here, boss. I going back home.
Frank: This we home, dol. The mangrove
Instead of staying to battle it out or explain further Dol gives Crichlow a gentle tap of the shoulder and returns inside to join the celebration. Frank is left to process his words until another acquaintance hails him from across the road.
Whether or not this conversation actually took place is neither here nor there, but what its inclusion in the film – and its placement at the very end – represents is just how central this concept of home and where we do and don’t find it is to the Black experience in Britain. Even today.
Crichlow’s simple statement ‘This we home’ and the addition that not Britain, not Notting Hill – but the Mangrove itself was their home away from home is relatable decades later.
From WhatsApp group chats to Afro-Caribbean and *cough* BAME associations and carnivals to community centres. From the London-centric Black folk who reject the rest of the UK and joke of London independence to those who rep ends and postcodes unrepentantly. We’ve annexed little parts of England off to make home, an admission of the reality that we don’t fully identify with the country as a whole.
We’re still creating our own institutions and fortifying those that have stood the test of time. Still in some cases reliant on external funding to support our safe spaces. Still fighting the mistreatment of, and threats against our community services.
Our habits of creating home here haven’t changed much at all since Mangrove closed its doors in 1992.
What happens when key leaders pass on, safe spaces close down and in the cases of several of our community groups and non-profits the funding pot runs dry?
Maybe then, one of the lessons both Mangrove and our elders have left us with is that – at least in the UK – ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same’.
For as long as Black people are in the UK, institutions and bodies will continue to crop up to fill this home-sized gap. And the racism? We’ll have to suffer many more cold British winters til we can truly see anything close to its defeat.
In the words of Dalston Isaac, “We may have won the battle but we’ll see about the war”. Now it’s just a question of whether today’s Black communities would rather stay and fight, or accomplish the age-old dream that every Caribbean parent or grandparent seems to have had of moving back ‘home’ by retirement.