Small Axe: Mangrove

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films have begun with Mangrove and I’m writing about it because representation in all forms matter.

After Mangrove I was left utterly punched in the feels by what I had watched. Telling the story of the Mangrove Nine’s Old Bailey trial, it’s a film about community, compassion, anger and frustration. I watched through gritted teeth as McQueen depicts the brutal harassment experienced by the owners and customers of The Mangrove at the hands of the police.

In the same month I also watched Aaron Sorkin's The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020), coincidently set in 1968 - the same year The Mangrove was opened, with the targeted police harassment beginning in 1969. I will admit feeling a detachment with Sorkin’s characters which was not lost through McQueen’s ability to make every frame feel like a weight of significance. From reflected silhouettes on a rain drenched car bonnet delivering impassioned speeches to signature long takes. McQueen allows Malachi Kirby’s Darcus Howe, Letitia Wright’s Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Shaun Parkes’s Frank Crichlow’s faces to just exist, to simply breath on screen. There’s something in the silence that McQueen has mastered in allowing raw emotion to envelop you. Mangrove is a distantly British portrayal of oppression which sits alongside of Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976) and Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980).

Digital illustration of Small Axe: Mangrove, Letitia Wright’s Altheia Jones-LeCointe addresses a room of South Asian men.
Small Axe: Mangrove, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

Often our British experience - of immigrant communities - our histories, coexistence and integration are marginalised to the point of non-existence. Hence why so many have resonated with suddenly feeling seen, via Mangrove, and being acknowledged by a filmmaker as significant as McQueen. This extends to the British South Asian community and McQueen’s representation of us, it was not tokenistic, it was a community acknowledging another community in our shared struggle navigating Britain.

When Wright’s Altheia Jones-LeCointe is delivering a speech to a room full of South Asian men about joining a union, it’s significant because it will honestly be the largest gathering of South Asian actors I am likely to see in an English spoken film this year and probably the next. The weight of the shot was immense and though no one spoke aside from Wright’s character, it represented so much of where we could be found, what we were doing, who we worked with and what we looked like. We weren’t the symbolic background Sikh but shown as South Asians that make up a community.

It’s representation and inclusion we can be proud of.

But in the same breath it was interesting to also see a return of depicting South Asian women as the second, consigned to the kitchen whilst Wright and a group of South Asian men laugh and talk about the “important matters” in the living room. To me the South Asian women were void of personality and undeveloped, used as a comparative symbol of subservience to be opposite to Wright’s determination, conviction and personality. Compared with Anita And Me (2002), East Is East (1999) or even The Indian Doctor (2010) series, all set in the 60s or 70s, South Asian women were very much out of the kitchen. They were so in my family and I imagine yours too. However this is not a British South Asian story which is why we need more voices to share our realities and histories on screen.

Small Axe: Mangrove is phenomenally good and very simply should be shown in secondary schools as part of the History curriculum.