Entertainment

How Steve McQueen's 'Mangrove' Brings to Life a Vital Moment in Black British History

McQueen's 'Small Axe' film series premieres on Amazon Prime November 20 with 'Mangrove,' a vital, true, and little-known story about fighting police brutality.

mangrove
Amazon Studios

About 10 years ago, actor Shaun Parkes heard the story of Frank Crichlow, the man he plays in director Steve McQueen's Mangrove, from Crichlow's own daughter, an actress named Lenora, arguably best known for the "White Bear" episode of Black Mirror

"When I first met her with her little young self, bless her, she told me about her dad, and this dad who became an activist and whatever else, and the London Carnival was a big part of his life," Parkes remembers. "I was like, 'Really? That happened?'" Before Parkes met Lenora, he had never heard of Crichlow or the Mangrove Nine and their fight against police brutality that led to a court trial in 1970. "It's not a piece of history that gets mentioned a lot or has had a chance to have people like you and me talk about it," he says. 

Mangrove is part of McQueen's Small Axe project from the BBC, which debuts on Amazon November 20. Small Axe is hard to categorize. It's airing on television in the UK and streaming in the US, but it consists of five films, all of which document the Black British experience, acting as sort of a counter to the often whitewashed period pieces that one might associate with the country. (See, for instance, The Crown.) Lovers Rock, which was the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival, chronicles one joyous birthday party in London's West Indian community, and includes an extraordinary extended sequence of a crowd dancing and singing along to the Janet Kay song "Silly Games." Red, White and Blue, starring John Boyega, chronicles the true story of a Black police officer in the 1980s. 

Mangrove premieres first, however, and it's arguably the most ambitious undertaking. It runs two hours and seven minutes long, and charts how Crichlow's Notting Hill restaurant The Mangrove was targeted by a racist police force and subsequently became the center of a landmark civil rights case in Britain.

mangrove
Amazon Studios

As played by Parkes, Crichlow is initially reluctant to lead, until the abuse becomes suffocating. "He just wanted to make food, right? He just wanted to be looking at his menu and going, 'I think we'll go jerk chicken and some fish,'" Parkes says. "That's all the dude wanted to be doing week in and week out. But he couldn't even do that. He's seeing all his friends getting thrown out. This film could have been a series in itself and it would have been even more harrowing." The local police force—led by the loathsome PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), who doesn't even try to hide his bigoted hatred—attacks The Mangrove repeatedly on baseless charges. 

On screen, Crichlow tries to ask his representative in Parliament for help, but is ignored. His friend, British Black Panther Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), tells him to stop relying on the white establishment and encourages him to "take it to the street." Then, "the question then is: How could he not stand up for himself? And if the only outlet to your anger you've got is what they proceed to do nine times out of ten, if you're a dude like this, you're going to do it," Parkes says. 

In the first 45 minutes of Mangrove, McQueen paints a warm picture of early 1970s Notting Hill, and establishes The Mangrove as a haven and a target. Following the march, the movie becomes a courtroom drama wherein Darcus and Altheia Jones (Black Panther's Letitia Wright) act as their own defense as they and their fellow activists are charged with incitement to riot.

Despite the scope, Parkes explains that the shoot only lasted six weeks, whereas other projects of this size have gone on for months. The rigorous shooting schedule meant that Parkes never really had time to bask in McQueen's precise recreation of a moment in history. Even though thinking about it too much could "mess [him] up," he knew that there was pressure to do right by this portrayal of Crichlow. "We're talking about a character that no one around the world knows, but people around that community know very well," Parkes says. "And you're the chosen one. You're the guy who has been asked to play the role of a dude who actually lived and was a bit of a hero in that community for many, many years and is still a bit of an icon in that community." 

As soon as he got the part, Parkes says he called Lenora to say he was playing her father. The first day of the shoot. Lenora and her mother sent him a photo wishing him good luck. "But I'd equate that to: Don't mess this up."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.