We’ve had a lot of time to reflect in 2020, whether we wanted it or not. That means time to look into ourselves, our culture, our society – our history. It’s not a passive process, though that’s an easy trap to fall into; to accept ourselves and our collective story as it’s always been told. Sometimes we do that because the deeper truth is hard to accept, and sometimes it’s because we’re just too busy to take the time to question the established narrative – it’s easier to just crack on with what we’ve got. Steve McQueen first devised his Small Axe cycle of films long before the coronavirus pandemic upturned life as we knew it, but its immense impact on the mainstream view of modern British history has surely been felt more keenly because the five-film sequence interceded at a moment when we’d all been given a lot more time on our hands – especially those of us privileged enough that our lives have become slow and boring rather than destabilised and devastated amid the crisis. The cycle, broadcast over five Sundays on BBC One, is a long-overdue history lesson – an act of righteous vindication on McQueen’s part – and at its spearhead is Mangrove.

A rich, forthright work of cinema (notwithstanding the nature of its release), Mangrove stands distinct from the specificity of its counterparts. Where Red, White and Blue, and Alex Wheatle take a biographical approach, focusing on key figures in 20th-century Black British history, and Lovers Rock and Education take a more free-associative approach in their semi-fictional depiction of sensory and experiential memory over historical fact, Mangrove is Small Axe’s most conventional, but most sweeping instalment. Its subject is the web of activists, community figureheads, unsuspecting citizens, and interlocutory authoritarians that coalesced around the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, West London, in the late 1960s. Its story concerns their myriad involvement in the unsubstantiated police raids, the respondent protests (long derogatorily labelled as ‘riots’ in the history books), and the subsequent 1971 trial at the Old Bailey.

Mangrove 3

Courtesy of: BBC Films

While the trial of the Mangrove Nine is often cited as a turning point for the British justice system in its recognition of racial hatred as a motivator for unwarranted police interference, its significance is generally parsed only by those with specific knowledge or interest. The case certainly doesn’t see the light of day in Britain’s classrooms where the syllabus favours the American civil rights story as a tactic to distract from the deeply entrenched class and racial injustices that are intrinsic to our own national story. McQueen’s work here finds its power in not only austerely educating the uninitiated on this vital historical event, but by breathing life and colour into its participants. Early stretches of easygoing long takes show street dancing, family life, and smoky mealtimes at the Mangrove to build out a community around the restaurant’s proprietor Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) that flows and pulsates. Parkes’ own warm, world-weary performance is intrinsic to that, as is the gentle seeding of thematic and aesthetic touchpoints that McQueen will weave into the subsequent films in the sequence – references to foundational Black scholarship such as C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins or a vibrant, lovingly-selected soundtrack of featuring the Wailers, the Maytals and more will reemerge rewardingly in due course.

It’s all the more effective in how this allows McQueen to inject Kafkaesque desperation and paranoia into the film’s second hour, which is almost exclusively taken up with the trial of Crichlow and eight other Black West Londoners, all accused of inciting a riot. Legal to-ing and fro-ing in the court is intercut with shocking moments of brutality in the holding cells as Chrichlow and company are jostled, provoked, and tormented by the representatives of a system rigged violently against its Black citizens. McQueen is as virtuosic directing this absurdist horror show as he is in those earlier moments of joy and community – and both modes recur across the series. He and Parkes are reinforced by superlative supporting turns from Mangrove’s ensemble, prominent among them Malachi Kirby as Trinidadian-British campaigner Darcus Howe and, of course, Black Panther star Letitia Wright as real-life Black Panthers figurehead Altheia Jones-LeCointe (a late-on, incendiary monologue from Wright is certainly the film’s big ‘moment’).

Mangrove 2

Courtesy of: BBC Films

The title Small Axe comes from a proverb most famously quoted by Bob Marley in the Wailers’ song of the same name – “If you are the big tree / We are the small axe”. It’s a concise encapsulation of the series’ modus operandi to deconstruct Britain’s white supremacist established order and collective self-image, but it can also be easily spoonerised as ‘small acts’ which, trite as it might seem, represent for me the most resonant moments across this ambitious, unprecedented undertaking – and in Mangrove most of all. There are big lessons, moral and historical, to be learned from McQueen’s work here, but the real value comes from seeing people depicted simply living. A shared joint, jokes over jerk and rice, a quiet sip of Red Stripe, hands on a partner’s hips while dancing at a street party, a mother softly crying as she cradles her baby. Small acts of humanity, strength, community, solidarity. These are what make Mangrove more than a straightforward educational resource and turn it into a capsule from the past that resoundingly indicts and incites the present and we who are living through it.

Mangrove is the highest-ranking Small Axe entry in ORWAV’s 2020 rundown, but the complete anthology is a timely, timeless masterpiece – it is Steve McQueen’s greatest achievement (so far) and an essential corrective to cultural, societal injustices in which so many of us have been culpable for so long. Before things become fast and loud once again, we should all take that time to watch these films, to look deep, to reflect, and to return to the world one day soon better-equipped to help make it just.

So to recap, here’s our Top 20 so far…

=#20 – Shirley
=#20 – A Hidden Life
#19 – And Then We Danced
#18 – Dick Johnson is Dead
#17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
#16 – Wolfwalkers
#15 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
#14 – True History of the Kelly Gang
#13 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
#12 – Lovers Rock
#11 – Ema

Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2020 to count down our Top 10 films of 2020.