New York Film Fest 2020 Review: The Justice System Goes on Trial in Steve McQueen’s Captivating Court Drama “Mangrove”

“This is a restaurant, not a battleground,” says Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), attempting to keep the peace in “Mangrove,” having just opened his dream locale for Trinidad cuisine in Notting Hill. While most locals are content to enjoy the food, some wish there was gambling in the back, but that’s hardly the harassment he’s concerned with as the local officers have taken an undue interest in the business, reading the Black ownership card that’s proudly placed in the window as an affront that leads to one warrantless raid after another with claims that they might be serving alcohol without a license or operating as a front for a sex club.

Part of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, charting the West Indian community in England during the 1960s and ‘70s, “Mangrove” finds its way into the courtroom when Critchlow is implicated in a protest that turns violent with a host of other activists in the neighborhood. No doubt ever left that it’s the police that should be held completely responsible for it, but McQueen and co-writer Alistair Siddons take the opportunity of the real-life case of the Mangrove Nine to show a justice system bent towards suppressing Black power at every turn. With the case unfolding at the Old Bailey, a courtroom usually reserved for the worst crimes against the state, there appears to be no effort made to hide what the verdict will be for Chrichlow and others, despite the veneer of civility imposed by Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings), who even allows for one Black man to serve on the jury after a contentious selection process.

McQueen gives his characters agency that they aren’t afforded by the court, tightly packed into a small square gallery above the lawyers to watch the proceedings, freed up by the cinematography of Shabier Kirschner as they go about reshaping the trial with little room to operate. Among those Crichlow stands accused with are Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe (a fierce Letitia Wright) and the publishers of a community newsletter, Darcus (Malachi Kirby) and his wife Barbara (Rochenda Sandall), who see an opportunity in the their attorney’s stray suggestion that they represent themselves to throw some unpredictability at the prosecution. The decision pays dividends when going over the details of the protest with the most racist PC on the force (Sam Spruell), and while the clean-shaven officer has no mustache to twirl, McQueen isn’t shy about presenting him as pure evil with his barely concealed prejudices making for a rather poor mask for the establishment he represents with his badge.

Still, though the obvious villains are displayed without much subtlety, “Mangrove” is at its best when revealing the less obvious obstacles of an unjust system, the largely unarticulated doubts that set in when Frank is left to wonder why there’s so much adversity to keeping his humble cafe open, whether as a group they’re presenting the best defense they can or when a plea bargain is aimed at dividing them, whether they will stick together in solidarity. As unjust as the charges are and the way in which they’re treated by the court, far worse is the punishment they dole out on themselves in their concerns about whether they’re making the right decisions for situations they never should’ve had to be confronted with in the first place. “Mangrove” is galvanizing as they manage to rise to the occasion time and again, but it leaves everyone else with a lot to answer for.

“Mangrove” will be available for an encore virtual screening at the New York Film Festival from October 3rd at 8 pm EST through October 5th at 8 pm EST.