IIt is no coincidence that two courtroom dramas like Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and Aaron Sorkin’s The Chicago 7 Trial were released around the same time; Both films owe something to a climate of radical protest and counterculture in reaction to Donald Trump’s America and the conservative Britain of the Windrush and Grenfell scandals. However, the parallels between the two films feel strangely daring and (to the detriment of The Trial of the Chicago 7) the differences between them are illuminating on the different politics on display.
Sorkin’s film focuses on eight men (the Chicago 7, plus Black Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale) charged with, among other things, inciting riots in 1968. McQueen’s deals with nine black activists in the west London, charged with skirmish and incitement to revolt, just three years later, several of which, including Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, were prominent figures in the British chapter of Black Panthers. In both situations, activists faced a punitive judicial system and a curmudgeonly, racist judge; and both cases became famous causes as the trials dragged on.
Sorkin can’t get to trial soon enough: After a cursory exposure, his film hits court in its 13th minute, while Steve McQueen takes almost an hour before its leads face a jury. This is because Sorkin loves courtroom dramas – his film revels in legal jargon and aftershocks, and all the other events in the film take a backseat to the case itself. Many of the events the film focuses on are presented in flashback; Bobby Seale is first seen in court. This means that the characters are presented primarily as legal subjects, a perspective that aligns Sorkin with the state. Rather, McQueen spends time with his characters, taking their time, and sometimes rejoices in portraying an entire community, a gathering place, and the police protest itself. Not surprisingly, the film is called Mangrove (after the Mangrove restaurant, a center of the black community of Notting Hill) and not The Trial of the Mangrove 9. In other words, McQueen’s interpretation of its protagonists is totally in agreement with their condition of outsiders: when they arrive at court, the institution feels brutal and alien.
Sorkin’s blind politics manifests itself in his film’s catastrophic understanding of racial injustice. One early scene shows Seale’s Black Panther colleague, Fred Hampton, criticizing the Chicago 7 for comfortably drinking coffee between court sessions, while Seale is taken to jail. Indeed, but what about Sorkin’s camera? Does he bother filming Seale in jail? No. In the film’s most egregious span, Sorkin shows Seale gagged and chained in court, before the intervention of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosecutor Richard Schultz secures Seale’s release. This horrific episode takes only a few minutes in the movie, while in reality Seale was tied up in court for days, with his jaw closed, before being released. The implication of Sorkin’s film is that attacking a black defendant is somehow anti-American; and the rescue of Seale by a white prosecutor again confers credibility and respectability on hostile institutions.
McQueen is more cunning, and his perspective is firmly aligned with his subjects, particularly in a sequence of bravado that parallels Seale’s treatment, when Darcus Howe and Frank Crichlow, the Mangrove’s owner, are brutalized by court officials. McQueen clearly describes this violence and, after the assault, he lives in Crichlow, alone in his cell, and in Crichlow’s screams of rage and despair. This sequence is long and pointed; it carries the description of racial violence, of racial injustice, beyond a simplistic configuration of for and against, of perpetrator and victim. McQueen shows a man bullied to the limit of his own humanity, stripping his soul.
Mangrove is not above the strange courtroom dramas: Howe and Jones-LeCointe are shown, portraying themselves, beating the officials in two fair scenes; but again, McQueen stays away from triumphalism. On the contrary, Tom Hayden’s great trap in Chicago’s Trial of the 7 closes the film with a veritable orgy of dignified tears, applause from the audience and a score of swollen threads. When Mangrove’s not guilty verdicts are finally read, McQueen keeps his camera fixed on Crichlow, shutting out the court around him: the judge calls for verdicts, the jury gives them, the audience reacts, they are just sounds, just like us. Watch a man crying. McQueen’s unerring approach again keeps his characters’ humanity front and center.
Mangrove’s filmmaking shows the limits, clichés, and emptiness of courtroom drama in general, while a flimsy example like The Chicago 7 Trial only underscores McQueen’s rigor. His project turns conventions upside down, to create better space for his subjects to live.
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