BBC One Small Axe: the true story of the Mangrove Nine and their landmark victory for Black Britain

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Fifty years ago, nine Black protesters against police violence were put on trial for incitement to riot and affray. Their hard-fought victory is one of the most overlooked events in British history, but the first film in Steve McQueen’s new BBC series finally tells their story to the masses – starkly revealing how the events that took place in 1970 echo the reality we face in 2020 in the process. 

It’s not often that a TV show will leave an imprint on your brain but Mangrove, the first film in Steve McQueen’s new BBC anthology Small Axe, certainly did. 

For me, it’s the image of Letitia Wright’s profile set against a sea of white male barristers in white curly wigs and gowns. It’s her character’s resolute expression as she, a Black woman representing herself before the jury in a landmark case tried at the Old Bailey Courts in London, interrogates a corrupt witness and articulates her way to an undeniable victory after being accused of biting a police officer. It’s the brutal juxtaposition of so many things in that overbearing courthouse that will leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it. 

Based on a true story, Mangrove sees Wright play the leader of the British Black Panther Movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe. When Frank Crinchlow (played by Shaun Parkes) opened a restaurant in Notting Hill on All Saints Road in 1968, it attracted a lot of attention from the local police force who were insistent on shutting down this Black-owned business that had quickly become a hub for the local community of West Indian immigrants who had settled in the area. It housed good music, great food, political conversation and a home away from home for many.

The police’s actions were racially motivated. It’s a familiar plot that leaves a sharp sting after the fight against police brutality towards the Black community that has also been painful and prevalent in 2020. 

The fact that there are more than 40 years between the incidents that director Steve McQueen has brought to the screen and the battle for justice that we’re still facing today is overwhelming. It’s a poignant merging of an under-recorded history and an inchingly critical present that we can’t hide from. 

Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby star in Mangrove, the first film in BBC's Small Axe anthology

Mangrove gives us a glimpse of the 12 police raids that were carried out on the Mangrove restaurant between January 1969 and July 1970. We see the police make unfounded accusations of drug use and prostitution. The Mangrove’s licence was removed after 11pm even though most visits were after midnight. Frank formally complained to the Council. The police kept on coming.

Far from Frank’s intentions (he just wanted to run a successful upmarket business, after all) his restaurant became the heart of community activism in the area as people like Wright’s Altheia Jones-LeCointe would gather, mobilise and support each other. After years of harassment by the police, though, a protest was eventually planned for 9 August 1970 after Frank and the community wrote to Prime Minister Edward Health to explain why they were forced to protest, “as all other methods have failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with Black people,” they wrote. 

On 9 August 1970, when 150 people peacefully marched through Notting Hill to the police station, calling for Black unity, Black power, and for the police to leave the Mangrove well alone. 

“We’ve complained to the police about the police and nothing’s been done,” Darcus said to the crowd, stood on top of a car bonnet to address them. “We’ve complained to magistrates about magistrates and nothing’s been done. We’ve complained to judges about judges and nothing’s been done. Now it’s time to do something ourselves.” 

Letitia Wright BBC Small Axe
Leitia Wright stars as leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe

It wasn’t long before the protesters were met by a reported 500 police officers who intended to antagonise those who were marching. 

Frank, Altheia, activist Darcus Howe (here played by Malachi Kirby), Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), Rupert Boyce, Rhonan Gordon (Nathaniel Martello-White), Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish (Richie Campbell) and Godfrey Millett (Jumayn Hunter) were arrested and charged with “incitement to riot and affray.” 

They soon became known as the Mangrove Nine and set out on a trajectory that would tremendously impact not only discussions of racial prejudice in the British judicial system, but in British race relations as a whole. And that’s how we arrive at Letitia Wright’s Altheia stood in the Old Bailey defending not only herself but the unborn child she was carrying during the trial and the future of Black people who would be affected by this trial regardless of whether it ended favourably or not. 

Though Ian McDonald, a formidable lawyer renowned for his involvement in anti-discriminatory law, equality and race relations in the UK and, defended the Mangrove Nine, Altheia and Darcus were two of the group who chose to represent themselves in a courtroom typically reserved for the most serious of crimes (rather than the alleged intention of riot that the Nine were accused) so they could directly address the jury in their own voices. 

Letitia Wright as leader of the British Black Panther Movemnet Altheia Jones-LeCointe

The trial lasted 55 days but lead to a monumental ruling in which the jury found all nine defendants not guilty of incitement to riot. Five were acquitted of all charges against the and Altheia, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon and Anthony Innis received suspended sentences for a selection of lesser offences, including affray and assaulting police officers.

In what became one of the first judicial acknowledgements of racial prejudice within the Metropolitan police force, Judge Edward Clarke closed the proceedings stating: “What this trial has shown is that there is clearly evidence of racial hatred on both sides.”

This landmark part of British history echoes a frustratingly familiar tone despite being a chapter in our past that I, among many, wasn’t familiar with. As Letitia Wright explains: “I think it’s really important that this story is being told today. I wish it had been done sooner, but God bless Steve for wanting to honour our elders. Their stories are now being told and brought to the forefront.

“As a young person, I didn’t know the majority of the things that we are speaking about in this project. I feel really ashamed that there was so much fight for us, and that young people in our generation today do not understand the hard work and the love that’s gone into fighting for our rights to housing, our rights to education, and our human rights to be respected.”

Letitia adds: “We are educated on the African American side. But many haven’t heard our side of things here in the UK. Mangrove and Small Axe as a whole is brilliant because we are able to educate the rest of the diaspora and the rest of the world about what was happening in the UK, much of which was hidden.”

Mangrove is available on BBC iPlayer now. Small Axe continues on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm.

Images: BBC

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