November 19, 2020
Steve McQueen’s film about accused Black activists leads us into its characters’ humanity, while Aaron Sorkin’s flimsy, manipulative US drama bolsters the system
Why Mangrove succeeds where The Trial of the Chicago 7 fails
It’s no coincidence that two courtroom dramas such as Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 should have come out 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 Tory Britain of the Windrush and Grenfell scandals. Yet the parallels between the two films feel strangely pert, and (to the detriment of The Trial of the Chicago 7) the differences between them are illuminating about the different politics on display.
Sorkin’s film centres on eight men (the Chicago 7 themselves, plus the Black Panther party co-founder Bobby Seale) charged, among other things, with incitement to riot in 1968. McQueen’s deals with nine Black activists in west London, charged with affray and incitement to riot, a mere three years later – several of whom, including Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, were leading figures in the UK chapter of the Black Panthers. In both situations, activists were pitted against a punitive judicial system and a cantankerous, racist judge; and both cases became causes célèbres as the trials stretched on and on.
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