‘’So, if you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Ready to cut you down, (well sharp)
To cut you down’’
– Bob Marley – Small Axe
For a minute or so, a rocking pot cradles to a stop, as a Kitchen’s stationary is left to rot on an abandoned floor. It would seem a scene from War, normality torn apart by the tenacity of it and displacement. Although this wasn’t a shot cropped from 1917, but a lasting frame of the remnants of Police brutality. The Mangrove has just been raided, and the Police orchestrate a racist attack. With bats swinging, uniforms in droves clinging onto innocent Black people manhandling them for existing, the restaurant is trashed and PC Pulley acts as if justice was served. I thought of those cries fading to silence as the shot of the pot drowns out the noise of vile Police and screams of the people they apprehended. This moment plagued my mind, clasped my throat, and I grieved about the horrors invoked by racism untold and unaccounted for. The afflicted Black livelihoods in our collective past, and the racism our society is structured upon even still prevalent today. We are essentially having the same conversations in a difference space, notwithstanding the dark depths of a racialised past. Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series Small Axe intends to weave a web of Black and underrepresented realities, true histories, starting with a captivating episode called Mangrove. Such an endeavour embarks on the task of alleviating that undefined past, if such a story basked in common knowledge not many would dare to question and ask about racism embedded within the Police and general Society. Based on the Mangrove Nine and their breakthrough Old Bailey Trial, which became the first judicial recognition of racism within the Metropolitan Police, this episode captures a moment in time, 1970’s Notting Hill instilled with a buzzing Caribbean community that is subject to Police harassment and a system of racism.
The Mangrove restaurant was recognised as a cornerstone of building a Caribbean community in Notting Hill. Serving food tailored to such a community, engaging with its people and acting as a base for community-led meetings. The Mangrove was a prime meeting spot for the Black community, a hub for authors, artists, musicians, and even white radicals. The restaurant hosted the likes of Bob Marley, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, C. L. R. James and many other prominent figures stemming from Black communities. Although, the show was not immersed in the fame of those who graced the walls of the Mangrove. But the culture and aspect of community and the fight the Black community faced was the most captivating notion throughout the film. A joyous colourful setting betting on good vibes, unrestrained afro’s and Caribbean jives, their pride in unapologetic culture, and gems of thoughts and feelings regarding race that represent a theme of Blackness constant throughout our lives and still relevant today. As Darcus Howe turns the page of C.L.R James The Black Jacobins, a complex study of the only successful slave revolt in Haiti, he utters the same ideal we still feel today “this book should be studied in schools” which makes it all more dejecting knowing we have had the tools to change these perceptions though still fight against this phenomenon today.
This first episode of Small Axe offers an impassioned spread of performances from a wonderful cast, including Shaun Parkes as the owner of the Mangrove restaurant Frank Crichlow. Frank Crichlow was described a shy and reserved man, who unknowingly became a community leader able to inspire communal change by the importance he held within it. Shaun embodies that aloofness which was marred by harassment from the Police and the racism evident in the streets. The Mangrove was regularly raided for drugs, despite Frank’s own anti-drug policy and eventual rehabilitation programme which saw no support from such Police. It is within such a space, being subjected to systematic racism, a necessity to combat it is born. The constant accusations the Mangrove faced, the games and raids the Police would play and undertake, and the sheer racism in which Black people fought against, builds an uncomfortable, debilitating watch. An inspired performance by Letitia Wright donning another Black Panther cowl this time as Altheia Jones-LeCointe is spell binding. Her tone is of excellence, words so powerful, Altheia’s proactive campaigning positions the nine and community to demonstrate alongside the contemplative Darcus Howe who is the other leading voice in the protest.
The most disturbing scene captures them both at the protest elevated with a speakerphone. Grenfell rests in the back. A very poignant scene that acted as an intense realisation of the collective oppression minorities have faced while ringing sentiments we still live by today. A monumental performance by Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe relaying everything from his protesting scowls to pitch perfecting his voice made me realise how suitable the star-studded cast was as they lived and act in recognition of all these incidents of oppression. For instance, Letitia Wright had been plotting on playing Altheia since 2015 when IMDB announced that Steve McQueen was starting this project. “Hey, this is about the West Indian Community” – Letita said “I got that culture within my blood, I need to know what’s going on there” In an interview with Cinema Blend, she claims the insightful research undertaken by the team in order to build the conception of the period drawing from true examples such as museums, documents and also a meeting with Altheia Jones-LeCointe herself. Letitia goes on to describe Steve McQueen himself, highlighting the Oscar Winning Director brings the best out of his actors through mere trust and his presence alone.
The first time I saw Malachi Kirby perform was in a BBC Docuseries alongside John Boyega, who plays Leroy Logan in the next episode of Small Axe, called My Murder. This is a sort of full circle moment as two young Black men’s career spans from capturing trauma in our youth to acting to bring to fruition the historical abuse of Black people in this country. Malachi Kirby has also had immense roles in Black Mirror and a remake of Roots as Kunta Kinte. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Kirby highlighted the fact that he had never heard of the Mangrove Trial before – which is unsurprising for me as a common understanding of Black British History is hosted in America. Working alongside Steve McQueen was essentially a history lesson for him. It is that very same necessity born to fight against systematic racism that such interested Black actors and directors endeavour to work from in presenting the past. Rochenda Sandall as Barbara Beese offered a unique perspective to the trial I personally had not considered. That these were normal people, glorified by their communal endeavours which in an ideal world would not be necessary at all. Barbara lives in fear of losing her child while on trial, at times reasonably fearing the worst in losing and facing a 10-year sentence in which she would lose her child. Sometimes, glaring back into the depths of Black activists, their heroic endeavours overshadow fragility as people.
All the actors invigorated and instilled a belief in their characters, drawing upon much more about their individual experiences and the perceptions of a Black community they all relate to. Even within Mangrove, the community gathers in order to educate Black youth on how to act around Police. Having to always live in fear of oppression, orchestrating a way in which to see it all and make sense of it, is an imposing reality we still share now. Today, there are youth organisations leading workshops to teach youth their rights when it comes to stop and search and general interactions with the Police and the criminal justice system. Such as the 4Front Project – a grassroots community movement that tackles youth violence, challenges a racist criminal justice system, racial inequity and unaccountability within our society. The fight against the system in its various ways of subjugation has existed for a long period of time, such an episode and show do the justice in bringing such ideas to fruition.
Even throughout this pandemic, Governmental statistics regarding the systematic oppression of Black people in stop and search, the disproportionate deaths by COVID-19 and the deaths of NHS staff of an ethnic origin. A widespread Society’s ill reaction toward the BLM’s protests and toppling of a slave statue, as well as the incessant conversations on whether racism exists as a phenomenon in this country or not shows the position, we are collectively still in.