• Riah Writes

'Mangrove' by Steve McQueen: Film review

Smart, witty, nostalgic and fuelling. Mangrove is one of the latest films by Oscar-winning Director and artist Steve McQueen, the mastermind behind 12 Years A Slave. Airing at 9pm tonight on BBC One, Mangrove (starring Letitia Wright) tells the true story of the nine protesters who were arrested for speaking out against the Metropolitan Police’s continual targeting of the West London Caribbean restaurant and community hub, Mangrove.

I had the pleasure of going to see this film last month at the BFI London Film Festival with We Are Parable.

It is a gripping film that had us as an audience belly laughing out loud, subtly dancing in our seats, and stiff with shock at chilling moments of injustice.

McQueen comes from a fine art background and it shows throughout his films. Stills of this film could have been exhibited as an artform in their own right and, in fact, photographs of his previous work were shown in the Among The Trees exhibition at The Hayward Gallery.

This film depicts the story of the restaurant Mangrove, a cornerstone for community and togetherness for West Indians in the Notting Hill area in London. More than a place to enjoy familiar food, and rays of warmth from the honey-like accents of other West Indians, it was a place of refuge for those experiencing racism in their new ‘home’. The restaurant was persistently raided by police without just cause. This incessant bullying leads a group of British black activists called The Mangrove Nine to start a peaceful protest. However, they were taken to trial lasting 55 days.

It challenged the legitimacy of the judicial process and our understanding of ‘fair treatment’. A theme that lies at the crux of this tale that is so beautifully illustrated in this film.

What I loved about McQueen sharing this story is that unlike many other films documenting racism, is that the context of Mangrove was actually quite every day and ordinary. The simple act of owning a restaurant is nothing audacious, quite banal, and yet the film shows how radically opposed it was. I feel it gives audiences an insight into what it feels like for basic activities of daily life to be spun into political acts that can make oppressed communities vulnerable to false accusation. Of course, it is particularly relevant after this year’s events and rise of Black Lives Matter. As I said in my poem ‘UNITY’: A response to Black Lives Matter, (featuring snippets of John Boyega's speech at the BLM protests who is also featuring in another upcoming McQueen film), "the fight for our lives is not just a moment, a trend or fleeting fashion."

"Start with the roots"

As with most restaurants, the kitchen is the inner engine. In the film, the kitchen also serves as a backdrop for the plot unfolding and is like the inner workings of the restaurant-owner Frank Crichlow’s brain. The inner tower of his heart and mind where he is most vulnerable. In a scene where Crichlow is teaching another how to chop Yam vegetables, he says “start with the roots”. A symbolic instruction and idea that comes to be the catalyst that leads him to resist injustices.

The kitchen is also where he plays steel pan drums in a scene as a bid to put a smile on Leticia Wright’s character in the film. A return to their roots that bought them there.

In an intrusive scene, the police raid the entire kitchen scattering utilities to the floor with loud clashes causing a steel colander to fall to the ground. The camera focusses on the rocking movement of the strainer on the floor, harking to the violation of Crichlow’s sacred space and reminiscent of the steel he has only just been playing in a previous scene.

A journey back in time

Production designer Helen Scott and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner create the west London of the 60s/70s in the film, showing images that strangely look like the backdrop of surrounding areas of Grenfell Tower. The music and costumes hauntingly could have been from my Grandmother's wardrobe back in the day. A tall shiny wooden wardrobe of which I have distinct memories looking into as a child in what felt like time-travelling through Narnias. The lovers rock, ska, Calypso and 70s mustard yellows, and patterned motifs mark this film with an accuracy I have only seen in photos.

I felt this strange sense of connection as did others in the audience as a first-generation born person of West Indian descent. The hidden Patois and severe insults that compel you to laugh partly out of entertainment and partly out of shock is sharp humour we all know too well.

Ironically, I recently spent a crisp sunny Sunday perusing Notting Hill market a week after watching the Mangrove. We spotted the famous shop from the Hugh Grant film, got overpriced coffee and (quite literally) bumped into Jude Law’s son there. On the day I actually said I hadn’t been to the area in years. Utterly convinced that was true until I realised that I was of course wrong. I go to Notting Hill every year as part of the sacred pilgrimage, Notting Hill Carnival! I just felt I didn’t recognise the streets in the light of day looking so different from the familiarity of bright colours, feathers and sound systems. So different to times I go any other time of the year between vintage stores and walks down to Holland Park. It was a realisation this film pinpoints and still feels palpable today.

There are two sides to life in London. There are gaps, even where we are geographically close. Multiculturalism is still being negotiated.

What are your thoughts on this? Will you be watching the film?

Follow me on Instagram for the latest updates, continue the conversation and connect: @riah_writes

Mangrove is one of five films documenting the triumphs and trials of West Indian life in late 20th-century Britain in a series called Small Axe. I’m looking forward to the upcoming films including unequivocal talent from John Boyega to name a few. Small Axe has been described as ‘love letters to black resilience and triumph in London's West Indian community. Vivid stories of hard-won victories in the face of racism.’

Tune in tonight on BBC One at 9pm or catch up on BBC iPlayer, or on Prime Video for viewers in the US.

Check out the film trailer below:

This review is part of a ‘Screen Queen’ series selection I have started. For the month of November, I will be doing recommendations: films, shows, online events or digital exhibitions that inspire us to use screens only for the most enjoyable, inspiring and nourishing things instead of mindless scrolling.


Thanks for visiting the Riah Writes creative writing blog. Riah is a creative writing blogger/poetry blogger interested in wellness, society, social justice rights issues and the Arts. Follow the blog and on Instagram to stay updated on new content.

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