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Brief Reflections on Steve McQueen’s Amazon Film Mangrove

Walter Moss: Europe, like the USA, faces the challenge of how to move from a dominant White culture into a more multi-cultural society that integrates darker-skinned people from different cultures

Having just watched Steve McQueen’s Amazon Film Mangrove—the first of five scheduled on successive Fridays in November and December—here are some of my thoughts. (For a more traditional review, see here.) First, it’s excellent entertainment, just as one would anticipate from the director of the Academy-award winning 12 Years a Slave. The film manages to be both enlightening and enjoyable, even humorous at times, and features some excellent acting. Secondly, it broadens our understanding of racism and fear of immigrantsthey are universal problems, not just U. S. ones. Thirdly, these problems have continued to exist for too long, far too long, and it’s sad, almost unbearably sad, that in 2020, in the midst of our national elections, U.S. racism and immigration fears remain so high.

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Mangrove was a popular-with-Black-Carribean-immigrants restaurant situated in London. It was owned by Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian immigrant. In the film, it and Crichlow are harassed by racist London policemen, which finally leads to a demonstration march, arrests of many Black activists, and a famous 1971 trial, which is the film’s central focus.

Europe, like the USA, faces the challenge of how to move from a dominant White culture into a more multi-cultural society that integrates darker-skinned people from different cultures.

The Mangrove film is so relevant today not just because of the 2020 racism revealed by the U. S. police killing of Blacks, demonstrations against such killing, and the racism and anti-immigrant animosity displayed by many Trump supporters, but also because so many right-wing European movements are fueled by racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. (Many of the immigrants are illegal, fleeing from violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.) From Poland and Hungary through Germany, Italy, and France, to Great Britain such sentiments are widespread in Europe, just as they have been in Trumpian America. (For the global interrelationship of racism, imperialism, and nationalism, see Ch. 4 of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces.)

Europe, like the USA, faces the challenge of how to move from a dominant White culture into a more multi-cultural society that integrates darker-skinned people from different cultures, and in Europe’s case sometimes from different religious traditions like Islam. (For more on this challenge in the USA, see “Do We Want the America of Frederick Douglass or Donald Trump?”)

In London, the setting for Mangrove, the 2011 census indicated that the white population was 60 percent; those of Asian ancestry (mainly from the territory that was once part of the British Empire’s India, 18 percent; and Blacks (mainly of Caribbean and African ancestry), 13 percent. Since 2016, the mayor of London has been Sadiq Aman Khan, who is of Pakistani heritage.

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Watching Mangrove, it is painful to recall that it is set a half-century ago and the racism reflected in it is still so widespread today. And that even a half-century ago, the slavery depicted by McQueen in 12 Years a Slave had been over for over a century. Our genocide against Native Americans stretches back to the beginning of our history and the enslaving of Blacks almost as long and yet, even after slavery ended, the white racism manifested in the post-Civil-War Ku Klux Klan disgraced our nation, as Ron Chernow so ably has indicated in his biography of Ulysses Grant. So too did the continued lynching of Black men, and not just in the South--see, e.g. the lynching of two Blacks in Marion, Indiana in 1930.

In 2020, amid our coronavirus pandemic, we read that Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics are about four times as likely as Whites to be hospitalized from the virus. Certainly this statistic, along with all the racist manifestations of the Trumpian presidency, suggests that racism is far from dead in our land.

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But, as Jesse Jackson used to say, “Keep hope alive.” And like Barack Obama, we must continue to embrace “the audacity of hope.” The future Biden presidency will not end racism in our country, and it will no doubt continue in Europe and other areas of the world. Now, however, here at home, with encouragement from the top, we can renew with added vigor, as Frederick Douglass advocated, our quest to make our nation better by embracing, not shunning, our ethnic diversity.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss