Rivers of Blood and Nonsense: Mangrove, The Trial of the Chicago 7, 3 Brothers (2020)
In a year marked by an 8 minute 46 second snuff film extracted out of the routine of daily life by psychopathic law enforcers, what’s more relevant and painful and, thankfully, cathartic than Steve McQueen’s Mangrove? It opens in joy, with the opening of a Black-owned business and West Indian Londoners celebrating in the street, but it only takes about 8 minutes to reveal its first corrupt white cop. The antagonist’s intro announces the diagrammatic conflict at hand. We wonder, will this all be historically accurate but simplistic, earnest, conventional? No! McQueen moves pretty swiftly through the predictable spasms of racial hatred that follow to get to the real point—a rousing and far from generic courtroom drama.
Yes, it’s prototypical, in many ways, in its structure and tropes, but also, frankly, beautifully constructed. The Old Bailey setting, a wood-paneled, vertiginous, archaic space with an oppressive symmetry, is ruled by ridiculous customs against which our counter-culture protagonists stand out. This section of the film opens with an unnerving aerial shot accompanied by ominous rising strings and something like loose castanets that remind of rattling bones. A haunted place. The scenes that follow are often composed and edited like a foggy dream: hand held, floating focus, blown out lighting, aggressive cropping, tilted framing.
The environment makes the otherwise period-correct ska and reggae seem anachronistic, which is a cool trick. McQueen also inserts these quick shots of historical photos, an animated collage, a reference to Hamlet’s ghost, all very subtly. Because the actual events happened over three months, a solid, controlled rhythm to the scenes seems like a crucial choice. McQueen balances bits of disturbance with a timeless quality which helps us grasp the defendants’ fraying nerves, their growing sense of injustice. All this bravura film-making is just a setup for incendiary cross-examinations or speeches of resistance to the status quo, performed with absolute magnificence by Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby and Rochenda Sandall. Tension explodes in a continuous four minute shot of a heated showdown between Wright and Parkes. Letitia Wright, man.
When the real world is tipped out of balance by corrupt forces, cinema can actually time travel back to events that provide working strategies for defiant response. And for mental health. Cinema’s super powers are a gift.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 performs the same trick, responding to the intentional confusion of today’s very real acts of police brutality and white supremacy with historical lessons from fifty years ago. Another courtroom drama where the production design drops us into a seemingly perfect reconstruction. The inherent rules of conduct force those on different sides of a culture war to clash. What do we learn? Oppressive systems require concerted efforts of alliance, strategic thinking, and, in particular, wit to defeat, if just momentarily. We need a Sacha Baron Cohen Abbie Hoffman to team-up with a Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Bobby Seale. A Dave Chappelle and an AOC. A Spider-man and a Captain America. Fools and warriors both bring something crucial to a resistance.
Damon Lindelof’s 2019 Watchmen seems very present and relevant, too. Its re-contextualized source material added to the very white mix Abdul-Mateen II’s Cal Abar and Regina King’s resolute super-hero Sister Night and made the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 a new kind of Krypton. Watchmen pushed that subsumed atrocity back into the public consciousness, in seeming provocation of the on-going attempts by the Conservative Right to ignore and even side with the current violence enacted on communities of color. In 2020, Lovecraft Country picked up that (blue) baton. It elevated its rote pulp material with the horrific spectacle of Jim Crow America, and Tulsa, and filled its soundtrack with critical examples of the poetry of resistance—Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”, Sonia Sanchez’s “Catch the Fire”, Sun-Ra’s “Space is the Place”. It also dealt straight up with its namesake H.P. Lovecraft’s virulent racism. Daring authorial choices infused some otherwise brainless entertainment with procedures for evaluating inequality. It kind of felt shamanistic, not least due to a very trippy vision called Beyond C’est and, maybe not unrelated, a lot of cathartic “lemonading” with baseball bats. Jurnee Smollett’s Leti Lewis took out our collective rage on 2020.
The storytelling shorthand of drama should be exhausted by now, right? Monsters and/or racists on one side, law-abiding working folk on the other. The diagrammatic construction of diametric opposition. Fantasies like The Mandalorian and Watchmen continue to rely on the same setup as always, just as classics like Do the Right Thing do, where the dispossessed clash with an evil Empire, an Order of the Cyclops, or just someone of the other skin trying to maintain their dominant status quo through intimidation. Sadly we’re a long way from replacing the comic book narratives of conflict. We still need Star Wars and Marvel to show us how to fight our coming fights, at least intellectually and emotionally. What’s the great 2020 lesson? Notions of bigotry and xenophobia previously understood to be evil are now accepted by way too many as normal. Politicians and police take notes from Hydra, Thanos and Darth Vader, and we need constant reminders on who they are and how to fight them. An expanding police state makes it harder for everyone to live freely and fairly and increases the likelihood of dying for nothing. With his enraged snippet 3 Brothers, Spike Lee asked one question: “Will history stop repeating itself?” We should prepare for the answer to be “no”.