Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of The Chicago 7, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove exudes genuine frustration over the historical events it portrays.
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe achieves what Netflix’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 aspired – and failed – to be. The hard-hitting anthology series has been gestating for nearly a decade, but the arrival of Mangrove – the first film in the series – feels especially fitting in 2020. The year has been heavily defined by civil unrest, but very few 2020 releases have captured the genuine frustration and extended much-needed compassion to the black community like McQueen’s Mangrove. Of course, the film’s focus on a historic trial makes it highly comparable to Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7, but Mangrove succeeds where Sorkin’s film does not.
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The first of five films in the Small Axe anthology, Mangrove tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, who were tried in 1970 for inciting a riot in London’s Notting Hill district. All nine were acquitted of their most serious charges, which immediately contrasts with the historical events of the Chicago Seven, who saw five of their seven members convicted of inciting riots. Both films explore similar narrative themes and real-world issues, and have impressive casts, but Sorkin’s feature takes a different line to McQueen’s in terms of seeking to provide “balance”.
Fundamentally, McQueen’s film ends on a much more nuanced note than Sorkin’s. The acquittal of the Mangrove Nine is obviously exciting, but there is still a looming sense that institutionalized racism has not finished rearing its ugly head within the West Indian community that Mangrove and the rest of the Small Axe anthology is expected to focus on. The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on a rather contrived note, as everyone in the courtroom stands and cheers while Abbie Hoffman reads off the names of those who were killed in the Vietnam War. It is a poignant moment, but also a tone-deaf one, as it accepts a small moral victory in favor of any systemic change. As a black man himself, McQueen manages to inject Mangrove with a sense of urgency that Sorkin cannot come close to finding with The Trial of the Chicago 7.
“We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists of our stories,” says Mangrove‘s Altheia Jones-LeCointe, played by Letitia Wright in a wonderfully passionate performance. She is explaining why she wants to represent herself in court, but one could just as easily imagine her addressing The Trial of the Chicago 7 directly with such a bold exclamation. Although the members of the Chicago Seven were white, their trial remained quite racially charged. And yet, Sorkin relegates Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale – who actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II pays loving tribute to despite working with limited material – to the background, downplaying the severity of the court’s mistreatment of Seale and writing him out of the film only halfway through. Mangrove, on the other hand, ensures that blackness remains front and center. The film is stylish, paying homage to cultural touchstones of London’s West Indian community via the incorporation of Caribbean music and emphasis on Caribbean food, particularly the kind served at the titular Mangrove restaurant. It is also unafraid to depict the atrocities committed by the London police, whose despicable harassment of the citizens of Notting Hill continued for decades after the events of the film. With The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin bizarrely imagines a sympathetic prosecutor in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz, whose silent support of the defendants in the film may seem sweet on the surface, but is ultimately a dangerous deviation from the evil perspective put forth by his real-life counterpart.
Sorkin takes several naïve liberties with The Trial of the Chicago 7, rendering even the film’s most progressive moments suspect. Sorkin settles on the almost offensive notion that “both sides” feature good people, a suggestion that McQueen refutes with a justified fury in Mangrove. Passion reverberates throughout McQueen’s film, making The Trial of the Chicago 7 seem overwhelmingly flat by comparison. Sorkin has a long and illustrious career as a screenwriter, but he has been criticized as a subpar director in the past. The Trial of the Chicago 7 resonates with our current moment in several significant ways, but considering the urgency of the film’s subject matter, Sorkin’s direction just feels a little safe. McQueen, on the other hand, takes every opportunity to celebrate the black heroes at Mangrove‘s core, and critique the racist system that these activists had to fight so hard against.
What is perhaps most exciting about Mangrove is that it is only the first film in McQueen’s Small Axe series. The first Black director to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, McQueen is clearly equipped to tell complex and important stories that continue to empower and engage with underrepresented communities such as that of the West Indian immigrants in London’s Notting Hill.
Next: The Trial of the Chicago 7: What Happened to Judge Julius Hoffman
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