Steve McQueen’s Small Axe – Mangrove

We mustn’t be victims, but protagonists of our own story

I want this line spray painted across every government briefing and policy document relating to modern race and racism. It feels like it could be spoken by a Spiked contrarian or conservative politician opposed to ‘identity politics’ and ‘victimhood narratives’. But the key word is in the sentence is ‘we’.

It is spoken by the British Black Panther Altheia Jones, played by Letitia Wright in the BBC film Mangrove.¬†Mangrove¬†tells the story of a landmark trial in the early 1970s, when nine black people were tried for riot and affray for protesting against the Metropolitan police’s racial harassment of the West Indian community in Notting Hill. By choosing to represent themselves, this group of political activists and ordinary citizens successfully put the police and the British justice system in the dock and found these institutions to be systemically racist.

One of the most successful tricks the right pulled is conflating Black liberation struggles with a Thatcherite contempt for the Welfare State, where each became framed as a set of demands from people who are unwilling to take action themselves. I love this line because it positions Black people as subjects and authors of their own narrative¬† – the key objective of all serious activism. What the right can never accept is when people’s only means of acting as a protagonist must necessarily conflict with the centre of power.

The Conservative party are on a mission to convince the public that anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter perpetuate artificial grievances leading to the disempowerment of black people. One tactic is to present any conversation about race as antithetical to British culture. This was recently highlighted by the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, who in reference to the government’s attack on Critical Race Theory stated that it is ‘an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood, and their whiteness as oppression’. You don’t have to look too far below the surface of this statement to see that the Conservatives consider any conversation about racist oppression of Black people as an unacceptable part of political discourse. Racism, we are to believe, is a historical occurrence, and can only be meaningfully spoken about in the past tense.

There are many remarkable things about Mangrove, not least the excellent performances from a strong ensemble cast of predominately black actors (which remains a shameful rarity in screen and in theatre). But in some fundamental way it is just the existence of the film is what makes it so remarkable. The fact I and presumably most of the public had never heard of the trial before speaks to another form of oppression; the oppression of stories that do not conform to our national story.

I wonder how much effort a culture has to make to create these lacunae. The absence of Black stories from our understanding of nation and identity tells its own story of how Whiteness continues to act as method of homogenizing political spaces until contested histories become so unrecognisable that they are rendered invisible. Every so often drama fills vital gaps in my historical and political knowledge. Steve McQueen is one of those rare artists who consistently fulfils the artist’s mission to create work that makes us see the world and ourselves differently. If the government continue to pursue their vapid culture war in the fields of education and culture, then art must be part of the strategy to make visible suppressed histories.