Small Axe: Seared into Consciousness

<em>Small Axe: </em>Seared into Consciousness

A suite of five thematically and stylistically connected films, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is a multilayered and illuminating portrait of a community that has not received enough care or attention: London’s West Indian population from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The series opens with Mangrove, which dramatizes in intimately detailed and thrillingly epic fashion a crucial slice of British history: the lead-up to and unfolding of a sensational 1971 trial in which a group of nine Black activists of West Indian heritage stood accused of inciting a riot during a planned demonstration against instances of racist police harassment. These repeated abuses targeted patrons of a Caribbean restaurant called the Mangrove, a thriving hub for intellectuals and artists in the West London district of Notting Hill, then a major focal point of Black culture in the United Kingdom.

As McQueen’s film depicts, after a grueling fifty-five-day trial at the Old Bailey (as London’s Central Criminal Court is colloquially known), the Mangrove Nine were acquitted, leading to the first-ever judicial recognition of “evidence of racial hatred” in London’s Metropolitan Police force. In Mangrove’s climactic sequence, one of the activists, Darcus Howe—whose lilting, imperious cadences are mimicked with spellbinding accuracy by the magnetic Malachi Kirby—fervently declares to a rapt courtroom that the case “has seared the consciousness of the Black community to an extent that the history of Britain cannot now be written without it.” But despite the galvanizing force of Howe’s words in this electrifying speech—adapted by McQueen and cowriter Alastair Siddons from the actual court transcripts—they would not be fully mirrored by reality in the decades following the trial.

Like many of the cast and crew members of Small Axe, I grew up as an inheritor of the history that Mangrove relates. My grandparents moved from Jamaica to London in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation (named after a ship that docked in Tilbury, England, in 1948, bringing people from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Commonwealth islands to help fill vacancies caused by postwar labor shortages). My father was born in London and plied his trade as a reggae musician in venues such as Mau Mau Bar on Portobello Road, a three-minute walk from the former site of the Mangrove, which eventually closed in 1992 after years of gentrification and continued police harassment. Despite the work that Black British artists, scholars, writers, and organizers had done to keep its memory alive, the story of the Mangrove Nine was nowhere to be found in the textbooks I was assigned at school. Portraits of organized Black British community resistance were largely absent from national newspapers, television, and cinema screens. Films that yanked back the veil on anti-Black police brutality and institutional racism—Franco Rosso’s The Mangrove Nine (1973) and Babylon (1980), Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), David Koff’s Blacks Britannica (1978), Ceddo Film and Video Workshop’s The People’s Account (1985)—were banned, suppressed, or hamstrung by meager distribution.

Top of page and above: Mangrove
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