A man’s right to be nothing but a restaurateur, “to serve spicy food for a particular palate,” and a society’s flat refusal to allow him the satisfaction of this simple wish is at the heart of the molten magnificent Small Axe: Mangrove. The first in a five-part miniseries that chronicles England’s oft-overlooked Black civil rights movement, Steve McQueen’s feature — which was released last month and whose brilliance has already been unfortunately eclipsed by the stellar Small Axe follow-ups, released weekly on Amazon Prime, Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue — bristles with anger (righteous), outrage (outrageous), and joy (palpable). It also is, though not technically about restaurants, the film that most holistically captures what a restaurant can be, and why they’re so vitally important, particularly in times of duress and to communities under threat.
Mangrove is the true story of Trinidadian immigrant Frank Crichlow (portrayed in the film by Shaun Parkes), who ran a restaurant in Notting Hill in the 1960s, long before the neighborhood was synonymous with the affable and questionable sexiness of Hugh Grant. Notting Hill was then a Caribbean neighborhood, home to many recent West Indian immigrants, the so-called Windrush Generation, named for the MV Empire Windrush, the ship they first arrived on in 1948. Wooed to the U.K. to fill positions left vacant by the post-World War II labor shortage, the immigrants were nevertheless met with hostility. Mistreatment ranged, much as it did in the United States, from individual acts of cruelty to systemic oppression. As a film, Mangrove deftly weaves such acts together so that they are, as they always are, inextricable.
The film follows Crichlow as he opens the Mangrove in 1968 and is visited immediately by a local policeman, the sneering D.C. Frank Pulley (played with true unlikability by Sam Spruell). Pulley is, off the bat, a bully. He demands, as a sign that the Mangrove is truly a restaurant, “a sausage and egg.” After Crichlow tells him, “We don’t do that kind of thing,” Pulley intensifies a campaign of harassment that culminates in a protest march and the resulting trial of the Mangrove Nine, of which Crichlow is one. The second half of the episode, no less powerful than the first, chronicles this drama. (Riaz Phillips has written a wonderful overview of the Mangrove Nine for Eater London.)
Pulley is, of course, a mere twig of a far more odious tree. In fact, the title of the series, Small Axe, comes from a Bob Marley song of the same name, in which he sings, “If you are the big tree / we are the small axe / sharpened to cut you down.” The big tree, in Marley’s song, initially signified the stranglehold that two producers, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, had on Jamaican music at the time. But that it’s so applicable to a broader struggle reflects the fact that, just as Crichlow might wish to be simply a restaurateur, when the pall of injustice is thick, all art, all life is often impressed in service to fight it. And that is a burdensome thing indeed.
In the beginning, Crichlow is a reluctant activist. He is a restaurateur, and the Mangrove, is, as he tells Pulley, “a restaurant [which] serves West Indian food for people who eat that kind of thing. Just like any other restaurant: Greek. French. English, for that matter.” That he shouts this down the street at the marauding policeman’s retreating back, who strides away with self-satisfied impunity, drives home the fact that this isn’t any other restaurant. It is a Black man’s restaurant in a Black community. That the fulfillment of any wish, the claim to any human right, by a Black man is, by its very nature, a threat to the white hegemon. These are the long-neglected skeletons of English history, but Mangrove is not some bleached bone. It thrums with life and with joy — self-made joy that is often found at the table.
For the Mangrove is a restaurant, and though it is the center of the community, the center of it is the Mangrove’s kitchen. A small one, from what we see in the film, with about two cooks, including Crichlow prepping when need be. And spicy food is, as he says, what they serve. Calling out the night’s menu early on, Crichlow says, “Fish curry. Goat curry. Mutton curry. My mother’s crab and dumpling. But first we gonna start with our roots.” The dark shaggy root in question, a taro (also called dasheen, and a staple in Caribbean kitchen), is sliced open by Crichlow’s blade to reveal a perfect full moon inside. The roots give life.
From this food, one divines the transverse currents of slavery, servitude, and exploitation. Curry, like roti, came to the West Indies from Indian laborers forced there by indentured servitude to replace the enslaved Africans to work the sugar plantations owned by British colonialists in the late 19th century. Here it is a century later, being served in West London to the descendents of those enslaved and indentured people of the West Indies.
In Mangrove, there are plenty of scenes of destruction. The cacophony of glass shattering, the thud of bodies being hit, the workmanlike grunts of those doing the breaking are harrowing as they occur again and again, as they did in real life. A thing is broken. It’s repaired. Broken again. But McQueen gives space to not only the violence but also the silence that follows it. Perhaps one of the most affecting scenes, at least to me, is a static shot of the kitchen after yet another police raid. The camera angle is low, almost at ground level. In the foreground: a potato masher, a can of chickpeas. To one side in the middle ground is a colander, right side up. Next to it, another, toppled on its side, sways back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, for a good minute. And in that stillness, one recollects and re-collects a mind scattered, a mind knowing it might be reassembling only to be scattered again. In some ways, 20 years later, this is the antistrophe to the famous omelet sequence of Big Night. This is real time.
It seems a disservice to transpose thoughts of the Mangrove to the present or leverage realizations in other areas. It is enough to keep our gaze trained on the story at hand. To be sure, the story continues. Kettling, the police maneuver seen in the film, is still used today. “Hands off Black people,” chanted in the film, is the leitmotif found in “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” The Windrush Generation, heroes of the film, are still fighting for legal status well into the 21st century. Most of the Mangrove Nine are dead. Crichlow died in 2010, though the Mangrove closed well before that, in 1992, a victim of Notting Hill’s gentrification and Frank Crichlow’s persecution.
But art is applicable always and speaks to us through time. At one point in the movie, Black Panther activist and one of the Mangrove Nine Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) sits in the parlor of an Indian factory worker whom she is attempting to convince to join a trade union, drinking tea. (That the women are remanded to the kitchen is McQueen’s nod to the often lopsided intersectionality of many political and civil rights movements.) “If colonialism is good for anything, it brought us around this table,” says Jones-LeCointe. Though it’s not uttered at the Mangrove, it’s a line that stuck with me, for it holds in it the transmutation of suffering into action and joy (while never, not even for a second, absolving the sins of the infliction). And that too is the promise of kitchens and restaurants, that while they don’t offer the answers, they at least give us tables around which we can collect, and recollect, ourselves.
Joshua David Stein is the co-author of the forthcoming Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Il Buco Essentials: Stories & Recipes cookbooks and the memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef with Kwame Onwuachi. He is the author of the six children’s books, most recently The Invisible Alphabet, with illustrations by Ron Barrett. Follow him on Instagram at @joshuadavidstein.