The first release in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove, plays a little like a British version of Aaron Sorkin’s recent American project, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It relates an all-too-familiar story of police persecuting black people, in this case, the proprietors and customers of Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, established in the late 60s.
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) sets the place up in an attempt to give his neighbours a community hub, where they can enjoy traditional Jamaican cuisine, the odd game of cards and some playful banter – but, as the new decade looms, he regularly suffers at the hands of the local Metropolitan police force, in particular PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), an unabashed racist who seizes every opportunity to raid the establishment, beating up customers and gleefully trashing whatever comes to hand, simply because there’s nobody to stop him.
But Pulley has reckoned without Black Panther member Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) and her activist friend, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). Together, they encourage Frank to organise a peaceful protest march to complain about the rough treatment they are receiving. When the police’s heavy-handed attempts to control proceedings ensure that the march erupts into violence, it soon becomes clear that the only way the matter can be properly resolved is in court.
McQueen manages to capture the heady atmosphere as the inhabitants of Notting Hill spread their wings and take their first flights in the direction of a perceived freedom, little realising what a long and arduous trip it is going to be. There are strong performances from an ensemble cast, with Kirby and Rochenda Sandall particularly impressive as Howe and his girlfriend, Barbara Beese, and Spruell brilliantly loathsome as the odious Pulley.
There’s a vibrant soundtrack of early 70s hits, ranging from ska classics to the mellow tones of Jim Reeves, and McQueen’s team has a good eye for period detail. At times shaming – Alex Jennings’ portrayal of Judge Clarke offers a toe-curling depiction of a privileged white man seemingly oblivious to his own innate racism – Mangrove is a timely reminder that, though things surely have improved to some degree, there’s still a very long way to go before the UK achieves anything approaching equality for all.
With another four episodes to follow, each one featuring a different story, this is a powerful opening salvo in the Small Axe series, and makes it clear that McQueen is determined to take no prisoners. Bring it on.