Initially, I wanted to write two separate reviews for the first two episodes of Steve McQueen's five-part anthology, Small Axe. As is often the case, work deadlines and laziness entered my life so by the time 'Lover's Rock' had aired last night, I was halfway through my review of 'Mangrove'.
So instead of a single review, I've decided to write an essay/review around "Mangrove" and "Lover's Rock" which is also a broader commentary on the multifaceted black experience. Modern problems require modern solutions.
With that short preamble out of the way, let’s get into the first two brilliant episodes of Small Axe which has been airing on BBC.
You can smell and taste the culture of Britain's West Indian community
Although I consider myself British, I am really a British Nigerian given that both my parents are from Nigeria. However, since I am a millennial historian on everything black British, exploring and understanding the West Indian community is essential. I wouldn't have been able to write my debut novel 'A Prophet Who Loved Her' which is set in the same period that McQueen is exploring if I didn't look into the lives of West Indians in Britain during the 50s,60s, 70s and 80s. After all, as we must all know by now, West Indians were the first group of black people to migrate to Britain on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.
So, I was excited to see how McQueen would bring this period to life using modern, state-of-the-art cameras. And man, I was not disappointed. From watching the opening scenes of ‘Mangrove,' where we see West Indian men with their untidy afros (men were too busy trying to survive in an unfriendly country to be having razor-sharp trims like we do now), to the establishing shot of Notting Hill in 1968, with Austin Maestro cars lining the streets and men walking acros the road with long, brown trench coats, I immediately felt like I was seeing old pictures of London in high definition colour.
With the rich and rhythmic accent of Frank Crichlow's voiceover (played by Shaun Parkes whose acting is phenomenal in this episode) combined with Bob Marley & The Wailer’s ‘Try me’ soundtrack, within the first minute of Mangrove, McQueen instantly places us in the spirit and feel of the West Indian community. What followers is a powerful account of the real-life incident of the 'Mangrove Nine' when Frank Crichlow and several other black activists were falsely tried for inciting a riot when they staged a protest to bring attention to the brutal and criminal raids happening to Crichlow's restaurant, the eponymous Mangrove.
Everyone on the screen brings their absolute A-game. Letitia Wright, in particular, is a standout as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the impassioned leader of Britain's Black Panther movement. There is one scene where she passionately berates Crichlow, tears emerging from her eyes, for wanting to plead guilty instead of fight for justice not just for them but the future generation of black Britons. Honestly, Letitia's acting in that scene moved me in a way I did not expect.
The attention to detail in 'Mangrove', from the sounds, the aesthetics, the dialogue, and the music, is used to even greater effect in ‘Lover’s Rock.’ One aspect I am enjoying about Small Axe is each episode, well the first two which have aired anyway, do feel very distinct from each other yet still recognisably from the same canon. 'Mangrove' was basically a brilliant courtroom drama and 'Lover's Rock' is basically one big 80s blues party. With this setup, McQueen utilises music and dance in a way I haven’t seen on television before. It’s absolutely mesmerising. McQueen teases us with this kind of 'musical' continuous shots in one of the first scenes of 'Lover's Rock' where we see three women in the kitchen singing Janet Kay's 1979 classic 'Silly games.'
After we are introduced to the story's love interests, Franklyn (played by a refreshingly reserved Michael Ward, unrecognisable from his role in Top Boy) and Martha (played by impressive newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), we are treated to a fantastic scene. The two lovers and the rest of the partygoers start singing a collective acapella of 'Silly games,' totally lost in the high notes and arresting melody of the song. Honestly, seeing black people carried away in the soulful bliss of blues music hit me right at the centre of my own soul.
Even in darkness, there is light
What McQueen has managed to do with both ‘Mangrove’ and ‘Lovers Rock’ is to show two different but co-existing experiences of black Britons in the 80s. In 'Mangrove,' we are shown the discrimination black Britons faced with the police and within the British legal system itself. In 'Lovers Rock,’ we are shown the joy, fun and sometimes aggressive experience of an all-black party.
Why I really appreciate ‘Lovers Rock’ is that it’s the first time, in a long time, where we see black people simply enjoying themselves on national television. Of course, we do feel the hostility from white Britons with their unfriendly stares and racial name-calling in one scene, but these never become a significant plot point. 'Lovers Rock' is mostly concerned with showing us a great house party with black people dancing and falling in love. It's an intimate look at West Indian culture without being tied to any righteous cause about the black struggle. And it was so refreshing and so beautiful to witness.
But McQueen could only get away with such a light and easy-going narrative like ‘Lovers Rock’ because ‘Mangrove’ was so heavy on the police brutality and racial injustice. So often, this is the only story that is ever told about black people – our suffering and fight for justice and equality. Of course, these stories should be told, but it was genius for McQueen to show us the beautiful side of the black experience – drinking, dancing, smoking, and going wild on the dance floor.
Black lives are not just a palette of doom and dread but also of love and dance. There is always a light where there is darkness. Steve McQueen has so far succeeded brilliantly in showing all the colours of the black British experience with the first two episodes of his anthology.
Look out for my reviews for the remaining episodes Red, White, and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education.