The first instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe shows the brutality faced by black community and how they organised a radical campaign for justice
Critics have rightly lavished praise on Mangrove – the first film in Steve McQueen’s five part series Small Axe. The film gives a searing and cinematographically stunning account of the landmark trial of nine leading members of the campaign in defence of The Mangrove restaurant in 1970. Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes) opened the restaurant in Notting Hill in 1968 – the same year Tory MP Enoch Powell gave his notorious ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. The place quickly became a valued hub for the Caribbean community and hosted meetings for local activists including Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (played by Malachi Kirby) of the British Black Panthers.
This was more than enough to make The Mangrove a target for police harassment, and between January 1969 and July 1970, the premises were raided 12 times on spurious grounds. In response, on 9 August 1970, 150 people marched to the local police station, resulting in arrests for “rioting and affray” and the subsequent history-making trial of the Mangrove Nine.
There are three political themes touched upon in the film that are worth drawing out:
1 Self organisation
In one of the key speeches at the Mangrove demonstration Darcus Howe stated:
“It is for some time now that Black people have been caught up in complaining to the police about the police, complaining to magistrates about magistrates, complaining to judges about judges, complaining to politicians about politicians. We have become the shepherds of our own destiny as from today.”
In these words we can hear echoes of the ideas of Howe’s uncle, the great Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James. He, like Marx, consistently argued that progressive change was never handed down via ‘respectable’ complaints procedures, but rather arose ‘from below’ – from the self organisation of the working class. The strategy was also agreed with by one of the group’s lawyer Ian McDonald (played by Jack Lowden) who was a member of the International Socialists.
The primacy of such ideas had just been underlined for Howe by a period in Trinidad where, while working as a journalist for the newspaper of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union, he helped to galvanise support for the Black Power upheavals of February-April 1970.
For a time, the revolt brought the government to its knees providing Howe with a glimpse of a new society. The squares of Port of Spain were full of ordinary people debating politics and discussing how best to organise society without the state or capitalism. These images would have been fresh in his mind as he helped to plan the defence of The Mangrove.
2 Mass campaigning
During the courtroom scenes we are treated to the intellectual alacrity and eloquence of Howe and Jones-LeCointe in particular, and the growing confidence of the defendants as a whole. But it’s important to realise that this confidence stemmed in part from growing solidarity beyond the walls of the Old Bailey.
By representing themselves, exposing police racism and linking it to colonial history, the Mangrove Nine successfully turned the fight into a cause célèbre. Academic and former Black Power activist Harry Goulbourne considers the trial
“a defining moment for black people in Britain, because it actually gave real meaning to Black Power, in the sense that, here we were taking this stand and taking on the establishment and winning, and not through the artifice of or the words of defence barristers, it was actually black people doing it for themselves”
It’s a claim attested to by the fact that a demonstration called in support of the Mangrove Nine on the eve of the trial attracted over ten thousand people – nearly 100 times the size of the original protest.
3 Class and solidarity
Although the most striking images and slogans from the Mangrove defence campaign are ones commonly associated with Black Power, they were created by leaders who recognised the importance of working with allies from all ethnicities and building solidarity across the working class. This is acknowledged in the film with our introduction to Jones-LeCointe, who is seen on the factory floor attempting to unionise a group of south Asian men.
Howe also recognised that a divided working class was one vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. Writing about the trial nearly two decades later, he noted that the significance of the victory lay in the fact that a majority white jury had rejected the main allegations against them:
“The British State could not convince whites to join them. Racism as a basis for the division of the British working class had taken a beating, particularly since our defence was based on the fact that the police were liars and should not be believed.”
Steve McQueen fully deserves the praise and attention he is receiving for the Small Axe series. But one wonders whether he would have commanded quite so many column inches were it not for the Black Lives Matter protests that took place earlier this year. I make the point not to detract from the brilliance of his films but rather to underline one of their key messages – Black Power: People Power. When people self-organise and take to the streets opportunities for progress arise. These films offer new opportunities to educate and agitate. Activists must make sure they are seized. We must go beyond the rightful praise for the messenger, McQueen, and talk more about the message.
Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music.
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