Writing history

History is what we write about our past—it’s the origin story a culture constructs for itself, from a variety of sources and through a variety of media. With Mangrove, from his Small Axe series of films, Steve McQueen is writing history, as much as he is filming historical fiction. Although Black Power struggles have been accorded more attention in recent years than white-dominated cultural establishments have given them in the past, it is instructive that Letitia Wright, who plays Altheia Jones-LeCointe in this film had not heard of the Mangrove Nine before she was approached for the part. As someone who grew up in the British school system during the twenty-first century, you can bet that she was exposed to Black History Month materials, including a good deal of stuff about the American Civil Rights movement, but such a crucial moment in the history of Black British resistance was apparently neglected. That’s why I say McQueen is writing history—I mean it in a broader sense than the academic practice of history. With this film he inscribes the Mangrove restaurant, and the events that occurred around it, into a public record from which it has been, for practical purposes, absent.

The film is history in the sense that it is a secondary documentation of experience and event. Clearly, it’s a work of fiction, a dramatic representation of a set of events, and it shouldn’t be consulted for a definitive interpretation of the traces the trial of the Mangrove Nine has left on British culture and society; but Wright paraphrases McQueen as saying ‘the window for our elders’ stories to be told is closing. We can’t allow them to pass away and become our ancestors without them seeing themselves, their culture and everything they’ve contributed to the country represented onscreen’. This is the real work of the historian: securing the place of experience in the archive and the mythology which we carry with us, collectively, into the future.

I have to say that ‘the Mangrove Nine’ was little more than a phrase to me—something that happened near the time of my birth, and not too far away from me, but not anything I could have told you much about. So, briefly, a group of activists marched to protest the continual police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, the police attacked them, and several of them were tried for riot and affray. They were cleared of the most serious charges, and the trial exposed the white-supremacist practices of the Metropolitan Police for the first time, with the judge explicitly acknowledging that ‘racial hatred’ played a part in their actions. Their trial and acquittal was a very significant event in the history of racial politics in Britain.

McQueen’s telling of this story gets off to a shaky start. He begins by establishing some characters and locations, but every line of dialogue in this opening section is a soundbite. We see some activism and some political meetings, but also some domestic and social scenes—and almost every line in every one of these scenes is an earnestly delivered statement of a political position. We see Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese at home together, but the opportunity to establish them as a young couple, to make concrete the quotidian particulars of their lives, is squandered: instead, they yell political slogans at each other. The only moments at which the characters stop telling each other things they already know are a couple of well-made dance sequences. Other aspects of scene-setting, especially the visual realisation of West London around 1970, are absolutely superb, but I was starting to think I couldn’t stand two hours of zealous declarations when the movie got going.

The bulk of the picture is a courtroom drama, and once we’re into that phase it’s excellent. Now we have a reason for every character to make committed statements about their situation and the events they find themselves in; now we’re in the action. I guess that McQueen was more interested in the action than he was in his characters as characters, but it’s during this chapter of the film that we actually come to know them, and the actors have the chance to establish the nitty-gritty particulars of who these people are. For my money the establishing scenes should have been left on the cutting-room floor: the movie would have been the right length (90 minutes), and we wouldn’t know any of the characters any less well.

But two hours is how long a picture is expected to be these days, and leaving that criticism aside, this is a really good film—the best courtroom drama I’ve seen in a long while, in fact. The legal narrative isn’t skimped on or distorted, but at the same time it isn’t allowed to dominate, or to make the drama drily technical. The hearts and minds of the people in the dock drive the story, and the performances are right on the nail. Someone who wasn’t familiar with Darcus Howe might think Malachi Kirby was overdoing it at times, but for me he played the part with uncanny accuracy. The danger with a film that sets out to represent the unrepresented is that it may forget to be a good story, and the first impression I got as the drama opened was exactly that—it seemed programmatic and clumsy. But by the time the credits roll you’ve seen a piece of history, a piece of activism in its own right, and you’ve seen a great story, full of dramatic tension, and full of people that it’s easy to like.

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