“That’s what art can do: rewrite history in the way it should be written”Steve McQueen
It has been just over a year since the anthology “Small Axe,” directed by Steve McQueen, was released by the BBC, and there is still so much within these four films to digest. Unfortunately, films that dissect and portray the Black British experience from the 1960s to 1980s are scarce, to say the least. Still, with the emergence of this series, today’s generation is presented with the possibility of not only learning about the history of their ancestors’ activism but strengthening the connection to that specific cultural aspect of their identity.
“Small Axe” came in a year that was undoubtedly one of extremes. The heightened atmosphere resulting from the ongoing pandemic and the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests undoubtedly drew a lot of attention and willingness for the nation to confront these Black British stories. A year later, it can be questioned if the genuineness and motivation to tackle the root of racism in Britain persists. These films are a great vessel to be reminded of the urgency for Black liberation in Britain and around the world and inspire us to take action as a collective through witnessing the resistance of our ancestors. The medium of fiction through filmmaking has a special ability to connect us with the characters and experiences depicted on screen in ways that other methods of re-telling history cannot. In capturing this sense of connection as an audience member – through witnessing Black resistance and relating deeply with the manifestations of existing within a racist system – the drive to take action in our own lives and away from the screen can be significantly heightened.
Although a space inevitably exists, that separates that older generation from the new, the power the representation of this history holds should not be underestimated. Mangrove – the first film from the anthology that premiered November 15, 2020, is as much a telling of the past as a critique of the present. The roots of the injustice faced by the society depicted on screen are all too familiar in the lives of the current generation.
Mangrove follows the dramatization of factual incidents revolving around West Indian immigrants in Notting Hill. The film follows the group, later known as the Mangrove Nine, and includes members of the British Black Panther Movement, a Black power organization. From their harassment at the hands of the police, a monumental demonstration against this harassment, and an eventual fight for their freedom in the Old Bailey’s courthouse in 1970. This film particularly encapsulates the essence of British history that has for too long been absent on-screen. Kehinde Andrews notes, the Mangrove’s cinematic presence – amongst the “daily diet of Whiteness” we are so accustomed to – acts almost like a yearning for wider recognition of stories such as these, and furthermore, an interrogation and honest engagement with the realities that birthed these experiences.
In their book “Visual Methodologies,” Dr. Rose Gillian comments that “film is a powerful means of structuring looking, not only the looks between the film’s protagonists but also the looks between its protagonists and its spectators.” It is precisely this connection forged between the audience and the portrayal of the real-life characters within Mangrove that can prove so impactful and impressionable to reignite the spirit of resistance. There is no doubt that in revolving the story around the Mangrove restaurant and a relatable figure as Frank Critchlow, an outcome of such impact was specifically crafted and wholly intentional.
By telling such a rich history of Black resistance through the lens of an ordinary man’s struggle to protect his restaurant from police harassment, the audience is led into a vibrant 1970s Notting Hill through a very human understanding and relatability. As portrayed in the film, Frank Critchlow was a businessman whose main focus was running his West Indian restaurant, The Mangrove. He had no initial interest or intention in being involved in the Black Power Movement. Still, he was effectively forced into activism by the repeated police abuse and harassment on his business, which he discovered the British state had no interest in terminating. What is especially engaging is the long moments the audience can spend with Critchlow, absorbed into his specific perspective. Here, spectators are transported, forced to draw the parallels between the image they’re witnessing and themselves. From the get-go, the audience is quite literally taken step by step into Frank Critchlow’s reality as we witness his casual stroll through Notting Hill with an unmistakable spirit of familiarity. We feel pulled further into his world through the variety of interactions exchanged with “limers” at the front door. Aunt Betty, who we meet as he walks into the restaurant, and the idle young Kendrick, are both potently infused with a Trinidadian essence that is at once unified with our experience of Critchlow.
This atmosphere created due to such impressive attention to detail is immensely powerful in connecting us to this character, and themes such as community and commitment ring clearly to various audiences. Throughout the film, the most subtle moments spectators can spend with him immerse them deeper into his experience, and furthermore, the themes of Black oppression and resistance at large.
Writer for The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey, states in her review of the episode, “The most striking moments of Mangrove are not of anger, tears or passion – they’re of silence. It’s the minutes we are left alone with the Mangrove nine as they await their sentence.” This scene is particularly impressionable as the audience can so clearly read the tension, anticipation, and a certain surrender in the face of Critchlow, who is shown among a tense Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe, and Barbara Beese. At this point in Mangrove, Clarisse observes that we have “come to understand what [these characters] have sacrificed, what they desire,” particularly through the lens of Frank’s reality. We are urged to sit with them in the silence. Earlier in the film, Darcus Howe’s voice could be heard as Frank strolls through Notting Hill in our first encounter of him, saying, “these are new men, new types of human beings…they are leaders, but rooted deep among those they lead.” It is a testament to Frank Critchlow and a message to spectators who can find commonality in Frank’s story and an inspiration to stand up against the injustices experienced in the present.
On the revisioning power of art, Steve McQueen, in an interview, states, “That’s what art can do: rewrite history in the way it should be written” (McQueen, 2020 p.30). The representation afforded to British Caribbean peoples of their history merged with the power of fictional depiction is such a strong case for inspiring a new generation to continue the fight against injustices that their ancestors contributed so abundantly to, and can make one hopeful for a future where such issues are not at the forefront of the Black experience.
Mangrove and the other episodes from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology are available to watch on BBC iPlayer for a short while longer. It can also be rented or purchased through Prime Video.