Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ delves into injustice of 1970 court case with ‘Mangrove’
Before being cast as Frank Crichlow in Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove,” British actor Shaun Parkes dreamed of playing the West London restaurant owner and activist. Back in 2008, the actor worked with Crichlow’s daughter Lenora, who first told him the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black demonstrators who were put on trial in 1970 London on charges of inciting a riot.
Parkes couldn’t believe he didn’t know this particular piece of British history and felt strongly that it needed to be made into a film. Around the same time, McQueen was having a similar revelation, imagining a potential series of films looking at the city’s West Indian community. Those films, five of them, have now taken shape as “Small Axe,” an anthology for BBC One and Amazon Prime Video. They’re led by “Mangrove,” which recounts the events surrounding the Mangrove Nine trial.
“You have to dig very deep to find his story,” Parkes says. “Before we filmed this — believe me, I was looking — it was hard to find information, including on the internet. There was enough to give you the general story, but the specifics of who these people were was still tough to find. It was amazing that I’d heard the story 12 years ago, but even more amazing that it’s all turned up 12 years later looking like it does.”
McQueen, who hadn’t previously worked with Parkes, cast the actor through a series of auditions and meetings. The director, who co-wrote “Mangrove” with Alastair Siddons, was concerned that directors had encouraged Parkes to “overact” in the past and hadn’t played to his strengths. His goal was to get the actor to let go of any effort and simply act with a sense of “stillness.”
Steve McQueen kicks off his ‘Small Axe’ series with ‘Mangrove,’ a timely true story of protest in London’s West Indian community.
“He had to get to the point where he felt confident he could do what he could do,” McQueen notes. “He needed to get to the point where he could feel he could be totally himself. He didn’t feel he could be and that was understandable — he’s a Black actor in the U.K. … A lot of these actors are playing themselves for the first time, you understand me? Or they’re playing their aunt or they’re playing their uncle. They’re ready. If they’re not ready now, they’ll never be ready.”
Parkes had about three weeks between casting and filming to prepare. He worked with a friend from Trinidad, going through every line in the script and discussing what it means to be from one of the small islands in the West Indies. For Parkes, whose parents immigrated to the U.K. from Jamaica and Grenada, there had to be a specificity in Crichlow’s background. He never wanted to fall back on mimicry, although there was only one interview of Crichlow available anyway. The production’s dialect coach, Hazel Holder, helped Parkes get the accent right, but it was really just about following his instinct once McQueen called “Action!”
“There’s a certain amount of meditation that goes into a role like that,” Parkes reflects. “With other roles that I’ve done, it’s easy to have a laugh between takes. Do the normal things like get food or answer some emails. But I didn’t take my phone to the set once. I made sure I wasn’t distracted from what the specifics were.”
He adds, “This was a special project because I was able to put in all the work you would usually put in, plus 15 or 20%. That story, in a way, is in my DNA. You attack it slightly differently in that you have a lot of knowledge already within you. Not necessarily about going to court and being treated in a certain way — nowhere close to what those guys had to deal with. But there’s something that’s kind of imprinted in you that you do understand.”
McQueen sees “Small Axe,” and particularly “Mangrove,” as a way of making the past present, which can then, hopefully, inspire the future. He wasn’t offered the opportunity to make the anthology for BBC One, but instead went to the British broadcaster and insisted that the project get produced. (“No one gave us anything,” he asserts. “We took it.”) The director knew the stories needed to be told, not just to the British audience but also to a global one, which is why he pursued premiering them on streaming rather than in theaters.
McQueen and Siddons pulled from a lot of research in creating “Mangrove,” and some of the information in the film is only now seeing the light of day. A conversation with Altheia Jones-LeCointe, one of only two living members of the Mangrove Nine, who is played in the film by Letitia Wright, was instrumental in fleshing out what had happened behind the scenes, and Siddons dug deep into court records. Ian Macdonald, one of the lawyers during the 55-day trial, also provided the team with old documents.
While the first half of the film showcases the vibrancy of West London during the late ‘60s, filling the screen with dancing and music and food, the latter part shifts the viewer into the confines of the courtroom. McQueen felt it essential to not fall into the trap of formulaic, tedious court scenes, but rather to bring the energy of the Black community into this traditionally white space.
“You have this movie and it’s organic, in a way, how it evolves,” explains McQueen, who shot the key courtroom speeches in only two or three takes. “It’s people wanting justice, so it’s about action and it’s very physical. All of a sudden, that fluidity ramps up with the demonstration. And then, cut, it becomes very formal. There’s a template we put on the frame, which is the court. The Mangrove Nine and the people in the gallery are in this formal situation where even your body has a limited amount of room to move. What happens is the people in the dock and the gallery turn it into a place of righteousness. They turn it into church. The gallery is now the congregation and the stand now becomes the pulpit. That’s why they won. They took the institution and turned it into a place of righteousness. It was suppressive. It was containing. But they turned it into something else, as Black people have done since they started going to church. That’s what I wanted to do in the film.”
“One of the reasons it’s so energized,” Parkes adds, “is because of what people are saying. I don’t think people have quite seen that on TV.”
“Mangrove” has been in the back of McQueen’s mind for over a decade, but its release in 2020 felt particularly timely and poignant. The images of police violence against the Black community were resonant in the year of the death of George Floyd and others. But for Parkes this story has always been timely — and will likely continue to be so unless things change.
“That story from that day until this, meaning 50 years ago every year until this year, would have been relevant whenever it came out,” the actor says. “But I think everybody’s been taken aback because we’re all aware of what’s happened this year. We’re all aware of those debates and where those debates have taken us. On this specific subject matter, we haven’t had all the angles, and one of the angles to look at is drama. One way to look at any story is drama. You can talk, you can argue, you can take it to the streets, you can be violent, you can be peaceful — there’s various ways to draw attention to a subject matter. And this is one of them.”
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