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  • Writer's pictureNiall Glynn

For "McQueen" and country (London Film Festival)

Steve McQueen has never been one to shy away from tough subjects. Hunger strikes, sex addiction, slavery; even his heist film Widows was an exploration of grief. Mangrove is the first part of a series of films called Small Axe, each focusing on the experiences of Black citizens within Britain.

Mangrove is set in 1968 and follows the community who frequent the Mangrove restaurant. Ran by Frank Crichlow (a heartbreaking turn from Shaun Parks) they are continually harassed by the hateful police force who raid the restaurant with a laundry list of false accusations. Everything from gambling to gay sex parties are used as pitiful excuses to demolish what Frank has built.

The British Black Panthers become regulars, led by Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). Wright is terrific, providing an unwavering determination as things spiral out of control. Kirby balances soulful intellectualism with a powerful fury at the injustices they face.

Demonstrating against the police harassment they suffer their march is escalated out of hand by police brutality and interference from racists. Despite having their names initially cleared the justice system calls them back to trial to make an example of them.

McQueen’s visuals are characteristically superb, most notably in a scene of unjust captivity. Told in a single unbroken shot of rage and anguish as the imprisoned beats the door, this scene perfectly encapsulates the fears of the accused. As the final verdict is read the camera remains solely on Frank, a beautiful moment simplified and removed from the usual courtroom clichés.

Perhaps the biggest potential misstep in the picture is the pacing. The first half of the film is a set-up for the Mangrove community and then becomes a stirring courtroom drama as the Mangrove Nine defend themselves from outrageous accusations. If the work establishing the characters wasn’t so strong the picture could come across as too sprawling, but thankfully McQueen wins back all attention as the trial begins.

Following this, a second feature from the series was also shown- Lovers Rock. This may be almost half the length of Mangrove but is no less effective.

Exchanging the courtroom for the dance-floor Lovers Rock follows a group of black youths during the preparations and events of a big party. The excitement of sneaking out to meet people to drink and dance has been sorely lacking from the reality of 2020 so McQueen takes us to the early ’80s. The production design gives all the context we need, every character's choice of clothing tells you more about them than any expository dialogue ever could.

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (who worked on all the Small Axe instalments) captures the events with such warmth that even the most antisocial viewer would be desperate to attend this fiesta (that's if joyous renditions of Kung-Fu Fighting and other classics don’t win them over beforehand).

Linking the story to Mangrove is the occasional glimpses into the world outside the shindig. During preparations, a small group of white men can be seen disapprovingly glaring as the DJ’s set up. Their opinion of the reveries to come is clear. When Marta (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) storms out of the celebrations following a fight it is the threat of these racist hooligans that causes her to go back. The party is sheer escapism, a chance to forget about the hatred they have to face.

Of course, a large part of parties is public horniness and McQueen does not shy away from at all. We follow hands on the dance floor tentatively pushing their luck in attempts to engage stronger intimacy with their partners. The film is also too wise to ignore the possibility of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour, dealing with this in a standout dramatic moment.

Lovers Rock is definitely less of a narrative film than a vibe, a mood piece meticulously crafted to bring viewers into a world. With two such different yet terrific films in the same anthology series, McQueen has gone above and beyond his usual high standard, and I for one cannot wait for the rest!

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