Small Ax begins with the story of the historic Old Bailey trial of Mangrove Nine, which, given British TV’s penchant for Sunday night drama, was remarkably never dramatized. We have a true story here, featuring audience drama, inspiring heroism with a thrilling twist, and yet it has been overlooked? Apparently every last Jane Austen doodle had to be adapted five times, and each serial killer needed their own three-part character study, before we got down to it.
The basic story, if you’re unfamiliar (and most are not), is this: In 1968, the same year Enoch Powell gave his “Rivers of Blood” speech, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill and called it The Mangrove. Crichlow’s house quickly became a hub for the immigrant community that had grown up in West London since the Windrush era, and Bob Marley was known to pass when he was in town. This is also where young Darcus Howe (played here by Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther frontman Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) went to write brochures and hold meetings.
This was more than enough to make The Mangrove a target of police harassment, and between January 1969 and July 1970 the premises were raided 12 times on spurious grounds. In response, on August 9, 1970, 150 people marched to the local police station, resulting in arrests for “incitement to riot” and the historic trial of nine people.
Kirby and Wright are bright like two of the nine. Seeing Black Panther’s Shuri as a true Black Panther hero is part of that glow; Seeing them reunite with other Black Hollywood leaders such as McQueen and John Boyega (he plays the lead Met Officer Leroy Logan in a later episode), to tell a British story, is another. . Mangrove also succeeds where 2017’s Guerrilla, a more fictional account of the British Black Panther movement, failed, faithfully portraying the common struggle of London’s black and South Asian communities at the time, without erasing the central role of the black women. Our perfectly intersectional introduction to Jones-LeCointe, for example, is in the factory where she tries to unionize a group of South Asian men.
When people of color are the story and not the setting, suddenly there is room to explore. One of the most compelling of these struggles in wrestling is played out in Parkes’ performance as Crichlow. Not a born activist like Howe and Jones-LeCointe, he’s just an ordinary guy who wants to lead an ordinary life. But as Mangrove’s slow and tense build-up illustrates, even this simple ambition is being denied by a racist police force.
Why hasn’t the charismatic Parkes already had a series of lead roles? Why isn’t Real McCoy alumnus Llewella Gideon (who plays Aunt Betty) the host of her own BBC Two panel show? These are questions the UK television industry needs to ask itself. In the meantime, McQueen skillfully takes on the burden of the portrayal, tells the untold stories, and features framed portraits of Caribbean heroes on the walls of The Mangrove, as a reminder of how far it comes. (I look forward to a biopic of Paul Bogle, Jamaican hero and namesake of the 90s dance craze.)
But that’s not all. With its meticulous recreation of the texture of life, Small Ax opens up a mangrove-like space on television for the celebration and sheer enjoyment of Anglo-Caribbean culture. The party really starts in episode two, Lovers Rock, but there is music and joy here too, including a long, steel street party. In this difficult year, Notting Hill’s first carnival-free since its debut in the 1960s, it’s a scene that strikes a chord particularly hard.