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MOVIES: Mangrove - Review (LFF 2020)

Mangrove is a drama of epic proportions that emerges as one of Steve McQueen’s best films so far, a passionate rallying cry of a courtroom drama akin to The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s latest, which is due to come out on Netflix later this month, but arguably, acts as the superior of the two 'trial'-centric movies.

Based on a true story, Mangrove follows the struggles of survival of a black-owned Mangrove bar that became the focal point for abuses of police power. During protests against the police for constantly interrupting the quiet and normal life of the Mangrove and unfair discrimination that its owners and those connected to it face, nine are arrested and put on trial by a corrupt PC. They face constant harassment from the start and the odds against them get increasingly worse by the minute – with Frank Crichlow leading the defence at the Old Bailey, representing himself in front of the court to let his voice be heard.

1970s Britain is accurately brought to life before our eyes in Mangrove as the film covers an event that audiences probably know but don't know in detail. We zone in on a few locations keeping the drama tight and focused, and the rare establishing shots that audiences are given is presented through archive footage that is utilised to showcase aerial footage of train stations, creating a grainy and atmospheric feel, punctuated by a stylish and ultra-cool Trojan Records-fuelled soundtrack, so I would have been duty-bound to love it for its music alone but every music beat feels so delicately placed it doesn’t feel like a greatest hits film with the music playing a comparitvely minor part.

Mangrove works as a film of two halves – the first showcases audiences the discrimination that the Mangrove owners faced by police on a near-constant basis but it also focuses on the community that the restaurant built for the people around it, and those affected by police brutality. It’s in the restaurant that also provides a rare calm in the storm for its protagonists and McQueen manages to pour heart, soul and joy into these characters. But that doesn’t last – the second half turns into the courtroom drama where its most electric scenes are felt and powerful monologues are issued in a way that feels incredibly raw and effective as the Mangrove Nine are faced an unfair trial at the hands of a crooked court. This leads to a divergent movie that almost feels like two different films but there is enough connection to make the transition feel seamless, thanks in no small part due to the performances of its all-star cast that give it their all. Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby both give powerhouse performances that deserve awards almost instantly, and Shaun Parkes’ passionate defence as Frank Crichlow is one to be praised with the highest regard.

The film feels incredibly vital in its approach to the point where it almost deserves to be shown in classes dealing with British History with McQueen bringing a sense of raw and spirited energy to the table that rivals the rest of his masterpieces, counting the likes of Widows (which also opened the official main-London Film Festival line-up in 2018), 12 Years a Slave and Shame among them. He is one of the few working directors that can do no wrong it seems – and Mangrove is no exception to that rule, with the drama setting a very high bar not just for Small Axe but also the rest of the London Film Festival. There is a very good chance that we may have seen its best outing already.


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