In my day Steve McQueen was the go-to guy if you wanted ride a motorcycle over barbed wire to escape the Germans, or rescue screaming women and children from a building skyscraper. We’re still waiting for the enquiry into Grenfell Tower, but we all know the score. Nothing much will be done, while the issues of class and race hatred will be quietly shunted into a side-line of something been seen to be done offscreen.
The black Steve McQueen is the new king of cool. He can do pretty much anything, (apart from ride a motorbike over barbed wire) and won pretty much everything, including an Oscar for best film, 12 Years a Slave. He’s part of the establishment and being given an OBE. He edited The Guardian’s The New Review to publicise his film anthology about historical injustices involving racial discrimination. BBC gave him a prime Sunday night slot for his drama.
Steve McQueen claims, ‘With Small Axe I want to reshape history’.
That sort of stuff doesn’t make me think of invading Poland, but of a joke in which Jesus answers a parable with a parable in which adulterous woman are going to be stoned.
‘If anyone is without sin, let them fling the first stone.’
And the Virgin Mary lobs a big rock.
Steve McQueen can’t walk on water. In the first episode of his series, Mangrove, depicts a true story about what happened in Notting Hill in early 1970s. His aim is to get under your skin.
Mangrove is the name of a West Indian restaurant opened by Frank Chrislow (Shaun Parkes) and closed, nine times in three weeks by the Metropolitan Police. Chrislow was following the dictates of the Enlightenment written in black and white in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations which extolled the righteousness of free enterprise, free from political intervention, government interference or legal restraint, ‘ruled by divine law for the ultimate being of all’.
Enoch Powell’s River of Blood Speech 20th April 1968 in Birmingham. ‘If they’re black-send them back.’ Remember that? Pre-Brexit, the threat of the black invasion. They were over here threatening our British way of life. ‘No blacks, No Irish, No dogs.’ It’s just as well we’ve moved on since them and we have Priti Patel as Home Secretary enforcing a policy of deporting refugees, equally, regardless of skin colour. Anyone sleeping rough can be deported back to their country, even if they’ve not got a country. It’s just best guess.
A cameo in Mangrove shows how that works. The rookie cop at Notting Hill station is playing at cards. He picks out the Ace of Spades. The other cops josh him, ‘you know what that means?’
He’s told that he needs to nick the first black man he spots.
‘What if he hadn’t committed an offence?’ the rookie cop asks.
In case you don’t get the Ace of Spades reference, we see the cops chasing a black guy and arresting him.
Frank Crichlow has committed even more of an offence. He’s opened a restaurant that sells spicy food such as goat curry. Worse than that it’s full of British people of West Indian descent that play cards and listen to music. In cop parlance that’s dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring.
Fling into the toxic mix Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) mouthy student, and leader of the British version of the Black Panthers. Add in Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) whose study into black oppression suddenly includes his lover Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and their child threatened with being taken into care.
Show don’t tell is one of the rules of screenwriting (and writing in general). We can’t taste spicy food or curry, but we can listen to the music. We can see how the community lived. The before and the aftermath of police brutality and cover-ups. The laws that are suddenly dragged out of retirement home for white people to confront a lippy West Indian community. New laws made on the spot for troublemakers.
We see the ‘riot’. We follow the arrests. There’s even time to nip off and get a screenshot of Chrichlow’s white girlfriend in the mirror telling him to come back to bed. That’s a double-dunt, in case you missed it, he’s not racist—they are. The establishment is.
Nine black men and women, including Chrichlow, are tried at the High Court, the Old Bailey. Incitement to riot and affray. They face serious prison time. Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) is described the Defence Advocate as your typical bully boy. In a different age he might well have become Prime Minister. Here he’s presiding over a case where no one will admit they’re guilty. Cops are always right, even when they’re wrong. And it’s not the Mangrove Nine who are on trial but the British establishment.
Viewers know how it ends, but we watch anyway as all wrongs are righted, or something like that. Rishi Sunak occupies 11 Downing Street, he’s looking to upgrade and evict the buffoon next door, all the better to deport even more refugees, wanting something for nothing. Even Steve McQueen OBE would find it difficult to write that script. It’s got to be Grenfell, that would be my cry. Grenfell puts these stories into the shade.