Screened on BBC4, this film confounded my expectations. I knew it was a film starring Anaïs Demoustier and that it was directed by her brother, Stéphane. I knew it was a courtroom drama and I assumed it dealt with the robbery of a bracelet. In fact, the term bracelet, is used in France to describe what in the UK would be called an ‘electronic tag’ fitted round the ankle, allowing an accused person to be living at home with restrictions on movement. The other thing I didn’t realise was that this was a re-make (I’m not sure how ‘loose’) of an Argentinian-Mexican film from 2018 titled Acusada (The Accused). The film is presented in the 1:1.66 aspect ratio which does help to create the slightly more claustrophobic feel of the courtroom.
This unusual narrative offers us a courtroom drama from an odd perspective – that of an ‘observer’ in the court. We are not placed ‘with’ the prosecution or defence case. It also allows us to identify with the father of the girl in question, Lise Bataille (Melissa Guers). Bruno Bataille (Roschdy Zem) is at times an observer in court but we also see him trying to maintain some discipline at home. It is clear that he doesn’t know Lise as well as he thought he did. Lise’s mother, Céline (Chiara Mastroianni) is absent from the court for the first part of the proceedings – she must work as both she and her husband are self-employed. With two such starry actors as the parents, it’s interesting that Anaïs Demoustier was given the role of the Prosecutor. Her performance is quite chilling and I found it unconvincing (and I’m a fan of Ms Demoustier). The French judicial procedure seems to conduct a case like this – a charge of murder – as requiring the presence of three avocats, one for the Prosecution, one for the Defence and a third representing the victim (in this case the mother of the murdered girl, Flora?). The court is presided over by a judge. Compared to an English Crown Court, the proceedings are more informal but allow examination of any witness, or the accused, by the judge and the three avocats.
The narrative takes place in the present but a prologue shows the arrest of Lise two years earlier. She has spent most of the last two years at home with her ‘bracelet’, pursuing her education by correspondence course. She was sixteen when arrested and is now eighteen. This is significant since her relationship with her parents has changed. There is no real explanation as to why it has taken two years to reach the Assize Court. I don’t wish to spoil your narrative pleasure but like one of the IMDB ‘user’ commentators, after years of watching Engrenages (Spiral), I do wonder what the investigating judge has been doing for two years and why the evidence of murder seems relatively thin.
Courtroom dramas are invariably conventional in that the audience is primed for familiar moments such as brilliant rhetoric from counsels, a witness breaking down and most dramatic, the sudden appearance of new evidence. In this case, if such conventions are employed it is with little attempt to dramatise the moment. Lise gets to give an emotional statement, but also to remain silent in response to some questions. Her counsel, an older woman, seems well-prepared and comes across well. The prosecution appears almost dismissive and intent on coming to a conclusion. The pleasures offered by the narrative are partly the pleasures of the ‘procedural drama’ – like a documentary with the tedious parts taken out. But as the case unfolds in court it seems to change towards a moral questioning of Lise’s behaviour as a 16 year-old. Flora was her close friend and classmate and together they did the usual things that teenage girls do except that, now in the era of social media, many of their actions are recorded on their phones and shared with others. Flora’s phone contains material shown in court and we get the feeling that what is shown is news to Lise’s parents.
I’m not sure what to make of the film, but I was certainly engaged by the narrative and in a different way to the usual puzzle-solving fascination of most courtroom dramas. It did seem to me a narrative that connected with contemporary concerns. The performance of Melissa Guers is remarkable for a young actor who had never worked on a film before. I’m not a parent and the Press Notes make clear that the director was motivated to some extent by his desire to explore what it means if a courtroom becomes the place where the life of your child is exposed to a wider audience in terms of behaviour of which which you have been unaware. I should note that Lise also has a younger brother (eight years younger) who is responsible for some key information. The family melodrama probably gets less time than the courtroom drama but it is equally important.
The Girl With a Bracelet is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for two months. I think it is definitely worth watching. I think the trailers give away too much of the plot so I’ve left them out.
In Bed with Victoria should be better known. I’m grateful to MUBI for offering the film as part of a trio of films starring Virginie Efira – an attempt to resurrect a couple of earlier titles after the high profile release of Benedetta. This move also introduces to me two films by Justine Triet, another of the seemingly numerous young women building a career in French cinema in the last few years. The UK title of this film is perhaps a little misleading and sets up expectations that are not really fulfilled, though once you’ve seen the film the title does perhaps work. The simple French title did need to be changed because of clashes with several other films and TV programmes in the UK. The film did reach the UK but only for a limited cinema release through Cinefile, the small Scottish distributor linked to French Film Festival screenings. Although the film did open Cannes Critics Week in 2016 it is not so much an art film but instead an attempt to rework the traditional romantic comedy. In the Press Notes, director Triet mentions Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards but also Sacha Guitry. Most of the critics have referenced Woody Allen. It does seem to be a role reversal comedy with screwball elements or, as Triet puts it, “a desperate comedy about the chaotic life of a modern woman”.
Vicky Spick (Virginie Efira) is a criminal lawyer, an avocate penaliste in her late 30s. Clearly competent in court, she runs a chaotic home as a single parent with two young children who appear to be almost feral in her Paris apartment. Vicky’s ‘solution’ to the problems of balancing home, social life and paid work involves therapy, on-line dating and a level of dependency on drugs and booze. She’s heading for a meltdown and only a succession of au pairs have helped to keep the children safe. A small number of friends also support her but the going is tough. When Vicky attends a friend’s wedding party she meets an old friend, Vincent (Melvil Poupaud) who will eventually ask her to represent him when he is accused of violent conduct by his wife who intends to divorce him. She also meets Sam (Vincent Lacoste) a younger ex-client who she prevented from being convicted of drug-dealing. Sam is clearly in awe of and probably in love with Vicky and agrees to be her unpaid live-in au pair. This looks like a move forward but then Vicky is hit by the news that her ex-partner, the writer David (Laurent Poitrenaux), has put all the details of her behaviour during their relationship into his ‘autofiction’ which is attracting attention. Worse is to come when she is suspended from the courts because of a technicality regarding a witness.
If all this sounds quite serious stuff, it is, but it also has several very funny moments, including Vincent’s trial during which Vicky has to deal with a dalmation and a chimpanzee in her defence case. There is romance as well. Everybody loves Vicky but I suspect I’m not the only one who hopes that it will be Sam who eventually saves the day. Virginie Efira is terrific, just as she has been in each of her other performances I’ve seen. I don’t know whether she is a star yet but she can certainly hold a film together and do everything she’s asked to do with naturalness and real vitality. She’s a joy to watch and Vicky’s costume choices are intriguing. Matching her with Vincent Lacoste, who is so good in the later Amanda (France 2018), was a great casting decision. I think that the film overall does have a screwball element and as an interviewer suggests, there is also a courtroom drama element. There are several courtroom scenes, including the one with the animals which IMDb suggests includes exterior views of an impressive Engineering School in Saint-Denis – a great find.
The film moves at a good pace and Triet and her editor Laurent Sénéchal manage to cut between the various troubles Vicky is facing in a rapid montage that is potentially bewildering but also conveys her predicament very well. The film looks good in the ‘Scope images captured by Simon Beaufils and there is an intriguing soundtrack including the Harry Nilsson version of ‘Without You’ which happily took me back to the early 1970s.French cinema has a history of successful romcoms (i.e. if you like the genre, they are successful). I think this is an interesting attempt to represent contemporary career women in a reworking of a traditional form. I’m still not sure I understand the French legal system but Vicky reminds me of Engrenages and Audrey Fleurot as Joséphine Karlsson. They have a similar taste in heels!
The film is available in the UK on MUBI and most of the main Rental/Download platforms.
This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.
The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.
The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.
As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?
When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.
There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.
In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.
(This post was first published in 2017 before I began a long project aimed at re-assessing the output of John Ford by re-watching and writing about as many of Ford’s films as I could find, numbering the posts as I go.)
Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.
This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it places Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.
The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter, one of the leading actors in Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers) and the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony, we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely railway halt. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.
Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.
The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.
Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers, the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).
Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).
This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be a future task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.
‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.
Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also, it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones. It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.
Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).
Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.
Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.
The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.
I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.
‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.
Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.
Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.
The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.
Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.
I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.