by Ge Allan
The 64th BFI London Film Festival has begun and with it, as expected, comes a digital streaming lineup plus some physical events in London.
We return to the strenuous work of watching films in bed for the second half of our two-part run down of the London Film Festival. Next up are some big hitters to finalise our virtual festival.
Mangrove (dir. Steve McQueen)
We continue with the first and most prominent feature of Steve McQueen’s much anticipated Small Axe anthology of five films, all of which will play on the BBC later this year. Mangrove plays out across 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood' speech and The Race Relations Act.
In a landmark case, the Mangrove Nine, a group of black civil rights campaigners fighting against police harassment eventually get charged with incitement to riot. Frank Crichlow is the owner of The Mangrove Restaurant which becomes a centre for the Caribbean community in Notting Hill and where young members of the Black Panthers gather, such as Darcus Howe and Atheia Jones-LeCointe, played excellently by Letitia Wright. It of course garners the attention of the racist police force who repeatedly raid, abuse and attack The Mangrove and its community.
The film is split in two, the first a rather theatrical and purposefully set designed drama highlighting the injustices faced by the immigrant community. The second is a much more interesting British court room drama where we meet anarchic barrister Ian MacDonald and severe old school judge Edward Clarke.
While the film is potent its in depiction of British racism, all the more recognisable today, the rather hammy first half, with empty streets and freshly written art department graffiti seems to detract from the relevance of the piece. The second half, filled with tension and a tightly wound script depicting the archaic justice system, is where it excels. Ian Mcdonald, a well known civil rights supporter, acts as a kind of mischievous pupil calling out the inconsistencies of the court to the headmaster-ly Judge Edward Clarke. The defiant rule breaking of the nine defendants in court, as well as Clarke’s reaction excellently captures the inherent bias of the court system.
The highlights of the film are Leititia Wright with her subtle portrayal of a young activist, and the dynamic cinematography recognisable from McQueen - especially from that impressive moving car tracking scene in Widows.
It is a story probably not well known in a younger generation who are not provided with an education of Black British history, which so many are rightly currently campaigning for. It is also one which highlights the grim connections between now and then. The policemen are shown as Punch and Judy villains, overtly sadistic with their unkind faces and obvious script. It is something which could have been handled with a lighter touch, but perhaps this is our bias, so used are we to insidious racism and politically correct language. Part of this is Mangrove’s success, especially as it will be screened on prime time TV. It raises questions of our own ignorance and what we have missed when the same fights are being fought 50 years later.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (dir. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross)
One the most enjoyable films of the festival so far is most certainly this quasi-documentary by the Ross Brothers.
We arrive into the bleary eyed, down and out fringes of Vegas, the morning of closing day at dive bar The Roaring 20s - or just 20s. It’s light out but inside is dark and dingy, there’s comfy sofas to lay your head when the booze overtakes and old tvs that play shopping channels and golden era movies. By 10.59am Michael arrives, the first and most loyal patron, and cleans himself up in the bathroom after a particularly difficult night before. Till 5am, iconic characters come and go and all the while we dip in and out of philosophical conversation, getting drunker, smoking more cigarettes and dancing to jukebox hits.
There’s veteran Bruce who occasionally intercuts with an absurd quote for listeners to take as they wish. There’s Lowell, a warm, dungaree- wearing, long-haired widower. Then burping, boob-flashing Pam who ends up tripping over her feet in the early hours. Conversations range from ex-wives and potential lovers to generational differences; how one has fucked the other and how the other doesn’t work hard enough. There are drunken promises, threats of beating asses, teenage sons stealing beers and dropped cake in the parking lot; heartfelt conversations filled with melancholia and acid drops provided by a flirtatious drug dealer with tattooed eyelids. 20s is where you want to be but also where you need to escape from. Michael, the wise, alcoholic ex-actor tells a younger patron to not be that guy who stays in bars all his life, but as another says of 20s, ‘when nobody else don’t want your ass, you can come in here and have a good time.’
What is perfect about the film is that it is too perfect. Watching you feel how many fiction filmmakers would love to capture the authenticity and originality of these characters but that is when you start to wonder at how perfectly timed it all is. The brothers have been a little secretive about how they put the film together but it is in fact somewhat staged. While there was some disappointment that this perfect night was not fully authentic, it is even more incredible and ingenious in its making, a piecemeal collaboration of all participants with real booze provided. The perfect night doesn’t exist in real life, but the Ross brothers made it happen - however formulated it may or may not be - and it is all the more poetic for it.
Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)
Finishing off our spin around the LFF roundabout is Josephine Decker’s unconventional semi-biopic of horror writer, Shirley Jackson. Perverse, sensual and ethereal, it is hard not to like Decker’s style but very difficult indeed to like Shirley herself.
We are introduced to her as agoraphobic and bitter, especially towards her campy husband Stanley Hyman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a literary critic who teaches at a Vermont college. Shirley is famed for writing disquietning horror pieces but is currently lost in malaise, much more prone to lying in bed smoking cigarettes.
While Shirley ruminates in the house, Stanley brings in a young, handsome couple, Rose and Fred. Rose is forced into providing Shirley company and tidying up after her mess as she struggles with writer’s block but becomes a perfect conduit for Shirley to project her new ideas onto, breaking her down before entrapping her in a spell.
While the film is wonderfully dream-like and seducing in its cinematography, the storyline of a missing female student is slightly laboured and recognisable. The subtexts of female sexuality and motherhood permeate throughout and are welcome but aren’t given enough time. Maybe because Decker didn’t write this screenplay it feels lacking somewhat in unexpected turns and originality.
What is admirable about the film is how outrightly horrid the couple of Stanley and Shirley are. Contemptuous, rude, more or less abusive. Shirley hooks her teeth into Rose but we aren’t truly sure of her feelings towards her, perhaps because of the brilliant Elizabeth Moss’s performance of her as surly, acidic and world-weary. Scenes where Shirley drips red wine onto an immaculate sofa or when she revels in revealing Fred’s infidelity are the most bewitching.
Stanley and Shirley combined together are parasitic. Shirley is told Stanley will never leave her because she will die without him but the reverse also seems true. He feeds off Shirley, critiquing her work, constantly in an affair and achingly mean-spirited towards Fred. While uncomfortable characters are always interesting to watch, the sadism of the couple leaves a bitter taste.
Ge Allan is the Film Editor of the Radical Art Review