Dir: Steve McQueen; Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby; 124 mins.

Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, which opens the London Film Festival, is a rousing courtroom drama which tells the true story of the “Mangrove Nine.” These were the Black defendants put on trial at the Old Bailey in 1971 for riot and affray after taking part in protests against unprovoked police raids of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill.

McQueen’s polemical intent is apparent from the very first scenes, set in Notting Hill in 1968, in which we see walls dubbed with crude, racist graffiti  – slogans like “wogs out” or “Powell for PM” (in reference to Enoch Powell, who had just made his racist “rivers of blood” speech)

McQueen’s polemical intent is apparent from the very first scenes, set in Notting Hill in 1968 (Photo: BBC/McQueen Limited/Des Willie)

There are references to a “police state in West London.” That might be overstating it slightly but the local Black community, for whom the Mangrove is a focal point, faces continual harassment. Whenever the Mangrove is raided, the magistrates and judges always back up the police. The system, as the restaurant’s genial but infuriated owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) puts it, is “as crooked as a damn ram’s horn.” Community leaders like Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby ) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) warn that if the police don’t stop the harassment, the Black community will make them stop. When there are protests, the arrests soon follow.

McQueen doesn’t just focus on the racial discrimination. He offers a vivid, even nostalgic, evocation of the period. Due attention is paid to the cooking in the Mangrove – the fish curry, goat curry and mutton curry.

On one level, this is the tale of two Franks. Pitted against Frank Crichlow is PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell). Pulley may look like Dixon of Dock Green in his blue uniform but he is a liar, a thug and a bigot.  He’ll criticise Crichlow for everything from not “knowing his place” (a familiar racist trope) to putting too much spice in the food at the Mangrove. Spruell plays him like a villain in a Charles Dickens melodrama.

McQueen can’t avoid all the clichés of the typical courtroom tale. Certain characters like the bad-tempered Judge Clarke (Alex Jennings) and the crafty and heroic defence barrister (Jack Lowden) seem familiar from countless other films in the genre. The prosecutors are strangely oblivious to the fact that police officers routinely fabricate evidence and that prison warders assault defendants. 

Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) in Mangrove (Photo: BBC/McQueen Limited/Des Willie)

Where Mangrove excels is in making trenchant points about racism and injustice while remaining a lively and enjoyable ensemble drama. McQueen gives us a very strong sense of his protagonists’ domestic lives. He brings humour and lyricism to his storytelling as well as fitting anger.

Mangrove opens the BFI London Film festival, 7-18 Oct. It is part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series of five films which will show on the BBC later this year