Steve McQueen

Small Axe: Mangrove

20/11/20

BBC iPlayer

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.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney