Music can tell us much about a people. So can food. Both can sensuously envelop us in the particularities of a culture. Fitting, then, that these two things are precisely where Mangrove begins.
As Frank Crichlow (played with dexterous reserve and intensity by Shaun Parkes) walks the streets of London’s Notting Hill neighborhood in the late 1960s, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Try Me” kicks up buoyantly, while a slow camera pull shifts our focus from him to the neighborhood, then to the urban expanse stretching for miles behind. These early moments do more than situate Frank within the city—they center a culture within the sprawl.
Frank’s destination is the Mangrove restaurant. It’s his restaurant, opened with a modest dream: to celebrate the food unique to his Caribbean culture. As he relays the night’s menu to the staff, we can almost smell the spicy, earthy curries, dumplings, and crab. Director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows) immerses us in these dynamic sounds and smells, giving us an introduction by way of the senses.
Mangrove is the first film in McQueen’s new anthology series, Small Axe (all five movies are available on Amazon Prime). Some parts—Mangrove included—are based on true events, while others are fictional stories; all focus on London’s Caribbean community.
Mangrove is told in roughly two halves. The first centers on the restaurant and the culture that thrives around it, as the Mangrove quickly becomes a place for the community to gather. It both houses and symbolizes a jubilation in the particularities of the Caribbean people: their food, music, language, and solidarity. One character explains, “We created the Mangrove, we shaped it, we formed it to satisfy our needs.” As people come and go through the door of the Mangrove, we watch the community find its unity, form its institutions from within, and foster flourishing.
But that flourishing is threatened by oppression from London police. It doesn’t matter that Frank refuses to allow illegal activity in his establishment; the unprompted raids and arrests continue. After relentless harassment, Frank agrees to form a protest alongside the local British Black Panthers (led by Letitia Wright as the passionately assured Altheia Jones). As they march against the racism of the police department, the cops close in on them, escalating the tension. After a scuffle breaks out, nine people are arrested and charged with inciting a riot. This group—known as the Mangrove Nine—include Frank, Altheia, Trinidadian writer Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), and Darcus’ partner, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall).
The second half of the film focuses on the trial. Despite the urgings of some of their legal counsel, all of them defend their innocence. Two, in fact—Altheia and Darcus—take the bold step of representing themselves in court. They stand defiant in the face of police prejudice and the court system’s strictures. At times, they draw the judge’s ire, but they also achieve small victories. Darcus successfully dismantles the false testimony given by police officers, while Altheia reveals the flimsiness of evidence brought against her. In the end, they all are declared innocent of the primary charges; the few lesser charges that are given are suspended by the judge.
The Mangrove Nine stand defiant in the face of police prejudice and the court system’s strictures.
At the heart of Mangrove is a cry for vindication from false accusations. For the most part, the movie rests that vindicating power in the hands of the Mangrove Nine. In doing so, it gives the accused a crucial dignity and agency that the British police refuse to allow. But at times, Mangrove also reaches for a more lasting assurance of justice.
At a point when the trial seems hopeless, Frank’s attorney advises him to plead guilty and accept lesser punishment. Aggrieved by those in power, uncertain of his fate, and unable to sleep, Frank nearly loses hope. In this dark night, he pulls out a Bible, finding an old family photo tucked within. He turns to the words inscribed on the back: “In God you must trust.”
It’s a soft moment in a movie bursting with loud ones. Through it, Mangrove gestures toward an ultimate vindication, a lasting security that no court system or human power can guarantee. This moment recalls the hope for righteousness that is found in Psalm 35: “Do not be far from me, Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God.”
In a world where evil seems ubiquitous, it is no surprise that this lament of David is echoed in the cry of the Mangrove Nine. They, too, could rebuke the “ruthless witnesses” and the “enemies without cause” who “devise false accusations.” Like David, they wonder why these injustices are happening and they search desperately for help.
Within his outcry, David turns to God as the everlasting source of justice. And when God’s vindication finally arrives, David says, “My whole being will exclaim, ‘Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them.’” The Mangrove Nine succeed in earning vindication, but the movie—and our experiences—make us aware that human victories are far too fleeting. We may win some battles, but evil still distorts our existence. Judges may declare innocence, but broken systems continue to plague communities on the margins of society.
Yet we can turn to the same rescue as David. God’s righteousness gives hope that justice can still break through and shatter the bitter ways of the world. But it also provides firmer ground for our hope: that God will establish justice forevermore. In Christ, we find a lasting justice which will never be threatened. With Christ himself as our peace, God’s people are brought into a new community and are strengthened to live out of this unity.
Like the Mangrove’s community, this people is also marked by feasting and singing. This community, finally, discovers the same reason for jubilation that David extolled: “My soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation.”