Never has a BFI LFF opening night film felt so immediate, so relevant to real-life events right now. 2020 has been one hell of a year so far, but a positive takeaway is the exploration of what ‘Black Lives Matter’ means, regardless of individual racial identity.

Steve McQueen starts that discussion on film with the first of his Small Axe cinematic stories, Mangrove. The director explains that Small Axe comes from a West Indian proverb translated as “together we are strong”. Mangrove visually and verbally enforces this profound saying. At the same time, the film provokes a real sense of enlightenment and, equally, shame because it asks the question of why the real-life events behind it are not part of popular general knowledge.

Mangrove was the name of the real-life Caribbean restaurant located at 8, All Saints Road in London’s Notting Hill. Opened in 1968 by the late Trinidadian community activist and civil rights campaigner Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), it fast became a hub for the local West Indian community. It was also visited by many celebrities, including Nina Simone, Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Ross, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. On the flip side, it became a magnet for blatant racial discrimination by members of London’s Met police force, resulting in regular raids.

In a bid to stop the discrimination and abolition of their community base, Crichlow and his friends take to the streets in peaceful protest in 1970, only to be met by police aggression. As a result, nine men and women known as ‘the Mangrove Nine’, including Crichlow, leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot and affray. A highly publicised trial at the Old Bailey commences where certain defendants represent themselves which leads to a hard-fought win.

Language, look and feel blend harmoniously in McQueen’s film, capturing the true West Indian spirit of that iconic street and its eatery. It is positive and dwells on the richness of culture and strength of personalities, rather than venturing down the visual route of portraying troubling socio-economic issues of the time. The latter moments, like children playing together in derelict streets punctuate rather than dominate the narrative. The camera moves like an extra between the main players too, especially in the uplifting scenes as the calypso steel band plays in the street and the viewer is welcomed into the fold. Such thoughtful scenes are vital to gain that true sense of community belonging and feel the frustration at the hands of crooked law-makers.

Parkes as Chrichlow is magnificent, an exciting and masterful actor who depicts in pained expression more than words ever could. His portrayal of his character’s sense of commitment to his community is enormous and dynamic, becoming all the more intense when Crichlow has doubts about his plea in court in the midst of the trial.

Black Panther star Wright shines like a beacon of hope in this. Her speech as Jones-LeCointe about upholding freedom of expression for future generations really hits home as a pivotal moment in the film. It is not lost on anyone watching, especially as human rights feel under attack nowadays. Again, McQueen’s choice to tighten the framing during her speech and make the viewer/camera part of the ensemble further emphasises this. Kirby as Howe is also rousing in his speech delivery, channeling his anger and becoming a resourceful advocate.

For a film caught up in the moment and the action at times, Mangrove offers some sumptuous and poetic cinematic moments, such as a reflection on a rain-soaked car bonnet of Jones-LeCointe during the protest, or long, drawn-out puffs on a cigarette as Crichlow awaits his fate.

McQueen also injects moments of humour that stem from great irony, even in the midst of the important trial proceedings that go to heighten the absurdity of the charges. Reactions from defending legal council Ian Macdonald who skillfully guides the Nine through the legal establishment’s regulations are playfully portrayed by Jack Lowden. These are in stark contrast to the scowls of Sam Spruell as PC Frank Pulley, the leader of the racist police pack. He is the designated bad guy of the story and one-dimensional in this, with only a hint of personal hang-ups that shape his character.

Mangrove is a must-see piece of filmmaking, unassuming in its immediate production values but fast becoming a tsunami in its message, especially at the end in the judge’s summation. McQueen has made this message universal too, inclusive and game-changing for any cinephile.