Film Review: Small Axe: Mangrove (dir by Steve McQueen)


Say whatever else you might want to say about 2020 as a cinematic year, at least it’s giving us five new films from Steve McQueen.

This British director is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and anytime we get new work for him, it’s a cause for celebration.  His latest project is Small Axe, an anthology of five feature-length films that examines the real-life history of London’s West Indian community.  In the UK, the film are premiering on the BBC while, here in the States, they’ll be premiering on Prime.  Through mid-December, we’ll be getting a new Steve McQueen film every week.

The first of these films is Mangrove.  The film opens in the late 60s, with activist Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opening a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.  The restaurant is called The Mangrove and it quickly becomes a base for the community.  It also becomes a target for the Metropolitan Police.  PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) claims that the Frank has a history of tolerating petty crime and that the Mangrove is probably just a front for some nefarious operation.  Of course, what quickly becomes obvious is that Pulley’s main problem with the Mangrove is that its owner is black and so are the majority of its customers.  Pulley is an unrepentant racist, the type of man who sits in his patrol car and complains that the military hasn’t been called in to enforce the law in the neighborhood.  (As obsessed as he is with the military, Pulley also says, with some pride, that he’s never actually served in the army.)  When a new rookie shows up, Pulley informs him that his priority for the night is to arrest the first black person that he sees.

Every chance that he gets, Pulley raids the Mangrove.  When Frank complains, he loses his liquor license.  When the members of the community stage a peaceful protest (“Hands Off The Mangrove!” goes one chant), Frank and eight others are arrested and charged with inciting a riot and affray, charges that could lead to all of them spending several years in prison.  (Affray is the legal term for “disturbing the peace.”)  Among those arrested, along with Frank, are activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitita Wright).  Both Darcus and Altheia insist on acting as their own counsel during the trial, giving them the chance to cross-examine the police and to also take their case directly to the jury.

Though Mangrove is a courtroom drama, the trial doesn’t being until almost an hour into the film’s running time.  Wisely, McQueen instead spends the first sixty minutes of the film introducing us to the neighborhood surrounding the Mangrove and also allowing us to get to know the people who not only work there but also the ones who eat there.  The film shows how, for a community of outsiders, the Mangrove became more than just a restaurant.  It became a center for the entire neighborhood, a place where the members of the London’s West Indian community could safely gather.  For someone like Pulley, the Mangrove was a symbol of everything that he couldn’t control and therefore, it had to be destroyed and its owners had to be humiliated.  As well-handled as the courtroom scenes are, they would be considerably less effective if the film hadn’t shown us why it was felt that the Mangrove was something worth fighting for.  When the Mangrove Nine go on trail, they’re not just nine people who have been unjustly accused.  Instead, they represent an entire community that refuses to continue to bow down to their oppressors.

It’s an often effective film, one that is all the more powerful for being based on a true story.  Much as he did with Shame, Steve McQueen makes effective use of the harsh and rather cold urban landscape that his characters inhabit. One needs only watch Frank walk down a dreary London street to understand why the Mangrove was so important to the community.  As presented by McQueen, the Mangrove provides not only an escape from the harshness of the world but also a safe place to discuss how to make that world maybe a little bit less harsh for future generations.  McQueen is brave enough to allow his camera to keep running, even beyond the point that most directors would have said “Cut.”  McQueen shows us Frank yelling after being brutally pushed into a prison cell, as any director would.  However, McQueen doesn’t cut away once Frank falls silent.  Instead, his camera remains on Frank, making us feel his isolation and his feeling of hopelessness.  It takes just a minute to go from the exhilaration of hearing Frank curse out his jailers to the horror of realizing that Frank is basically at their mercy.

For the most part, the actors make a strong impression, with the only false note coming from Rochenda Sandall, who plays Darcus’s partner and often seems to be performing in a different movie from everyone else.  Malachi Kirby and Shaun Parkes have several strong moments as Darcus and Frank while Sam Spruell plays Pulley as being an all-too familiar monster.  That said, the film is pretty much stolen by Letitia Wright, who brings both fury and wit to the role of Altheia.  Whether she’s exposing the Crown’s medical examiner as a fraud or angrily reprimanding a defendant who is considering pleading guilty, Letitia Wright dominates every scene in which she appears.

Is Mangrove eligible for the Oscars?  Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be.  But, with the rule changes and the fact that Mangrove was not only selected to compete at Cannes (before Cannes was cancelled, of course) but that it also opened the BFI London Film Festival, I think a case can be made for considering Mangrove to be a feature film as opposed to being a television movie.  This is a strange year so who knows?  Personally, I think Mangrove deserves to be considered.  If it’s not nominated for any Oscars, it’ll definitely be nominated for the Emmys.  That’ll be determined in the future.  For now, it can be viewed on Prime.

Playing Catch-Up With Four Biopics From 2017: All Eyez On Me, Maudie, A Quiet Passion, and Victoria and Abdul


Continuing with my efforts to get caught up on the major films that I saw in 2017, here are my reviews of four biopics!  Two of them are very good.  One of them is so-so.  And the other one … well, let’s just get to it…

All Eyez on Me (dir by Benny Boon)

All Eyez On Me is a movie that I think a lot of people had high hopes for.  It was a biopic about Tupac Shakur, who died over 20 years ago but remains one of the most influential artists of all time.  Starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr. (who, if nothing else, bore a strong physical resemblance to Tupac), All Eyez on Me followed Shakur from his youth as the son of activist Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), through his early stardom, his political awakening, his time in prison, his eventual association with Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana), and his still unsolved murder in Las Vegas.  Along the way all of the expected people pop up.  Kat Graham plays Jada Pinkett and tells Tupac that he’s wasting his talent.  Someone who looks nothing like Dr. Dre is introduced as being Dr. Dre.  Another actor wanders through a scene and says his name is Snoop Dogg.  The film last 2 hours and 20 minutes, with some scenes feeling oddly rushed while other drag on interminably.

The main reason why All Eyez On Me fails is that, unlike Straight Outta Compton, All Eyez on Me never figures out how translate Tupac’s legacy into cinematic form.  For instance, when I watched Straight Outta Compton, I probably knew less about NWA than I knew about Tupac Shakur when I watched All Eyez On Me.  But then there was that scene where NWA performed “Fuck That Police” while surrounded by the police and, at that moment, I understood why NWA deserved their own movie.  There’s no comparable scene in All Eyez On Me, which gets so bogged down in going through the usual biopic motions that it never really comes to grips with why Tupac is such an iconic figure.  Combine that with some less than stellar performances and some amazingly awkward dialogue and the end result is a film that is massively disappointing.

Maudie (dir by Aisling Walsh)

Maudie tells the story of Maud Lewis, a Canadian woman who found fame as a painter despite suffering from crippling arthritis.  Working and living in a one-room house with her husband, a fisherman named Everett (Ethan Hawke), Maud Lewis’s paintings of flowers and birds eventually became so popular that one was even purchased by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Maudie is a very special movie, largely because of the incredibly moving performance of Sally Hawkins in the role of Maud.  As played by Hawkins, Maud may occasionally be meek but she never surrenders her dream to create something beautiful out the often harsh circumstances of her life.  Hawkins not only captures Maud’s physical struggles but she also captures (and makes compelling) the inner strength of this remarkable artist.  Ethan Hawke also gives a remarkable performance as the gruff Everett.  When you Everett first appears, you hate him.  But, as the film progresses, Hawke starts to show hints of a sensitive soul that’d hiding underneath all of his gruffnes.  In the end, Everett is as saved by Maud’s art as is Maud.

Directed by Aisling Walsh, this is a low-key but all together remarkable and touching film.  If Sally Hawkins wasn’t already certain to get an Oscar nomination for Shape of the Water, she would definitely deserve one for Maudie.

A Quiet Passion (dir by Terrence Davies)

You would be totally justified in assuming that this film, a biopic of poet Emily Dickinson, would have absolutely nothing in common with The Last Jedi.  However, believe it or not, they actually do have something very much in common.  They are both films that, on Rotten Tomatoes, scored high with critics and not so high with audiences.  When last I checked, it had a 93% critical score and a 51% audience score.

Well, you know what?  Who cares?  The idea that you can judge a film’s worth based on an arbitrary number is pure evil, anyway.

Personally, I’m not surprised to hear that audiences struggled with A Quiet Passion.  It’s a very challenging film, one that is more concerned with mood than with traditional narrative.  The film is much like Dickinson herself: dark, uncompromising, sharply funny, and, on the surface, unconcerned with what people might think.  Much as how Dickinson retreated into her Amherst home, the film retreats into Dickinson’s head.  It’s not always the most pleasant place to hide out but, at the same time, it’s so alive with creativity and filled with such a sharp wit that it’s tempting never to leave.

In the role of Emily, Cynthia Nixon gave one of the best performance of the year, bringing Emily to uncompromising life.  Neither the film not Nixon ever make the mistake of sentimentalizing Dickinson.  Her pain is just as real as her genius.  Ultimately, though, both Nixon’s performance and A Quiet Passion stands as a tribute to Emily’s own quiet passion.

Much like Emily Dickinson’s poetry, A Quiet Passion will be appreciated with time.

Victoria & Abdul (dir by Stephen Frears)

If there’s ever been a film that deserves to be known as “generic Oscar bait,” it’s Victoria & Abdul.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad movie or anything like that.  Instead, it’s a very respectable film about Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian Muslim.  While the rest of the royal court is scandalized by Victoria’s close relationship with the foreigner, Karim teaches the Queen about the Koran and encourages her to enjoy life.  The royal court is played by the usual collection of distinguished actors who always appear in movies like this: Simon Callow, Tom Pigott-Smith, and Michael Gambon.  Victoria’s heir is played by Eddie Izzard, which should tell you all you need to know about how the future Edward VII is portrayed.

As I said, it’s not a bad movie as much as it’s just not a very interesting one.  You know that Abdul and Victoria are going to become close.  You know that the Royal Court is going to be a bunch of snobs.  You know that Victoria is going to get a chance to express anti-colonial sentiments that she must surely never actually possessed.  Indeed, whenever the film tries to make any sort of larger statement, all of the characters suddenly start talking as if they’re from 2017 as opposed to the late 1800s.

This is the second time that Judi Dench has played Victoria.  Previously, she played the Queen in a film called Mrs. Brown, which was about Victoria’s friendship with a Scottish servant.  Apparently, Victoria got along well with servants.