Small Axe, directed by Steve McQueen takes its title from the Bob Marley song.
“So if you are the big tree, We are the small axe Ready to cut you down, (well sharp), To cut you down.”
It’s a series of five discrete films of different lengths based on the life of “West Indians” in London. Mangrove is first. The film recounts the story of the police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in the late 1960s in west London.
Nine people were arrested and tried at the Old Bailey following a demonstration against police brutality which passed various police stations.
It begins in the late 1960s with aerial views of Notting Hill and the derelict housing. Children play on the scrap heaps of demolished homes where the Westway motorway was being built. A sign on a fence reads “Powell”—racist Tory Enoch Powell—“for PM”.
Amid all this, on All Saints Road, is the Mangrove restaurant, founded by a Trinidadian, Frank Critchlow.
It has gathered a reputation for more than its Caribbean food and attracts high profile customers such as Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross and Vanessa Redgrave.
It’s also a “home from home” for many of the Windrush generation and serves as a meeting place for the British Black Panthers.
The first quarter of the film slowly introduces the audience to the four main protagonists—Critchlow, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese.
We are also introduced to the notorious racist PC Frank Pulley. He leads the regular raids on the Mangrove and the stop and search, beatings and baseless arrests of young black men.
This stark moment reveals how little aspects of British policing have not changed.
The trial of the nine defendants is compelling and convincingly delivered by a talented crew and cast of actors. Howe and Jones-LeCointe represent themselves in court. With the support of the legendary barrister Ian Macdonald. The racist judiciary of the time is on display.
Letitia Wright—known for her role as Shuri in the film Black Panther—gets to play a real life Panther, Jones Le-Cointe.
Jones-LeCointe is described by the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson as “the most remarkable woman I have ever met.”
She came to London in 1965 to complete a PhD in biochemistry and became one of the founders of the Black British Panthers.
Her organising role, speaking skills and political contribution to the struggle has been brushed over like so many of the black women activists of the time. Barbara Beese, who stood in the dock with her, is another example.
Mangrove is a story long overdue and well worth telling. Steve McQueen does a great job bringing attention to the trial—the first trial to acknowledge the racism of the Metropolitan Police.
Five were acquitted of all charges against them. Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis and Jones-LeCointe received suspended sentences for a number of lesser offences, including affray and assaulting police officers.
As Darcus Howe—played by a charismatic Malachi Kirby—says, the trial “has seared the consciousness of the Black community to an extent that the history of Britain cannot now be written without it”.
Small Axe is on BBC 1, Sundays at 9pm, starting with Mangrove on 15 November