Movies about fighting for safe Black spaces stood out in 2020

Mangrove, Lovers Rock and The 40-Year-Old Version spoke to each other and 2020 in the ways their characters search for safe spaces

Des Willie / Amazon Prime Video

Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby lead a protest scene from Mangrove.

In Mangrove, the opening movie from Steve McQueen’s rousing Small Axe anthology, is about Britain’s Black Caribbean community fight for a space to call their own.

The space, in this narrative lifted from a true story, is a West Indian restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighbourhood. Mangrove opened in 1968, and endured repeated raids and unwarranted harassment from a racist police force bent on shutting the community’s social spot down.

Mangrove isn’t the only 2020 movie about the safe spaces – or lack thereof – where the Black community can exist and thrive. The film, which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video Canada, is in a dialogue with not only fellow Small Axe titles like Lovers Rock, but other recent films like The 40-Year-Old Version, Residue and even Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which hits Netflix on December 18.

In the latter, 1920s jazz musicians work in a recording studio’s basement or upper floors, depending on their status. But no matter how much they achieve, it’s still not safe for them to step outside. They are shackled to their stages.

Perhaps such movies feel even more impactful than usual because of 2020: We’re paying more attention to confined spaces in a pandemic that hit the Black community harder than others. COVID-19 disproportionately affects people based on race, which itself is a determinant on where they work and live.

George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in May prompted protests for justice and accountability. Similar protests occupied Toronto streets after Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death in the presence of police. Those protests subsequently inspired intense conversations about safe spaces for people to be able to voice their concerns about anti-Black racism in media and other industries.

That brand of activism is represented in Mangrove, which depicts a real-life protest against London police raids and violent harassment at the Notting Hill restaurant in 1970. The police attack the protesters in riveting scenes that resonate 50 years later.

(Spoiler alert: The rest of this story contains details about the plots and conclusions to some of the aforementioned films.)

The subsequent court case put the protest organizers – dubbed the Mangrove Nine – on trial for inciting a riot. The Mangrove Nine were acquitted in a historic decision, which marked the first time that a UK court case acknowledged that the police were motivated by racial hatred.

Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video

Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn take it slow in Lovers Rock.

From Lovers Rock to Residue

While Mangrove is about the Black community’s fight for a space to call their own, the following film in Small Axe, Lovers Rock, captures how they enjoy such spaces.

Set a decade later, Lovers Rock is about one evening with young Jamaicans attending a house party. The speakers are bumping reggae and the kitchen is serving up curry. The slow wine of a movie feels out the contours of the space, while entranced by dancers, movements and gestures. A quiver of the lip is as big a part of the narrative as an act of violence.

Lovers Rock observes the pleasures and warmth of the community, as well as the toxicity and trauma that can reside within it. Marcus Fraser’s Jabba, the hulking, baritone-voiced doorman, is both tender with his guests and fiercely protective of them, keeping all the nonsense from within and without at bay.

The white gaze is mostly kept out of a film that is completely inward looking until it arrives at the last dance. McQueen brings the movie home with an amorous pair Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) Martha and Franklin (Micheal Ward) scurrying off to the auto repair garage that the latter works at. The morning rises, but they try to keep the night going to the tune of Lee “Scratch” Perry singing “Dreadlocks in moonlight, bald head at sunrise.” (McQueen’s sound game is tight.)

“I see your eyes,” is the last thing Martha says before a white gaze intrudes. Franklin’s employer, enters the garage and turns up the lights. “It’s a little dark in here,” he says, before reprimanding Franklin for bringing his a social life to the work place. Once again, they are left without a space. Except for maybe church, which, given its history and how its been imposed on Black communities, has its own colonial cross to bear.

In the way that Mangrove and Lovers Rock speak to each other, so too do Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version and Merawi Gerima’s Residue. Both are about gentrification and mourning the loss of Black spaces (and are streaming on Netflix).

In Residue, a young filmmaker named Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu) returns from Los Angeles to his childhood neighbourhood of Q Street in Washington, D.C., searching for familiarity amid for sale signs and new white residents. Sounds and images from what is lost haunt Jay as he scours the neighbourhood, feeling alternately bitter, melancholic and angry. In a devastating scene, Jay visits a friend in prison. They trade looks, while the film imagines them carrying on a conversation out in nature. Their safe space is imaginary.

Courtesy of Array

While Lovers Rock feels freeing because it keeps the white gaze mostly locked out, the same gaze is confining in Residue. The film often leans in close to its characters, trapping them in its frame. You routinely hear or sense white people’s presence, and at one point the film even takes up the white perspective to see Jay running from the cops, a reminder that that’s how they see him.

While that gaze is an imposing presence in Residue, white faces are never seen in the film. As much as its about the Black community losing their spaces, Gerima goes out of his way to make the film itself a Black-only space.

The 40-Year-Old Version of Black-only spaces

Radha Blank’s comedy The 40-Year-Old Version is about the bitter failure to make theatre about the Black experience on her own terms. Writer, director and star Blank uses her own career shift as inspiration for the film. She took a break from screenwriter to become rapper RadhaMUSPrime, realizing that hip-hop can be a safe space for a purity of voice.

Courtesy of Netflix

Reed Birney and Radha Blank play producer and playwright in The 40-Year-Old Version.

In the movie, Blank stars as Radha, a playwright producing a show about gentrification called Harlem Ave. But financing needs means she needs to suck up to a white backer, who later re-negs on the promise of hiring a Black director and then insists that Radha must add a white character so that the audience has a surrogate.

Before she knows it, Radha’s play about gentrification has been gentrified.

The tensions within The 40-Year-Old-Version and Residue are not just between white and Black spaces, and respective gazes. They are also about the tensions within Black communities, as a result of the imposing presence or even the absence of that presence.

Before she seeks out the white financier, Radha writes for an underfunded Black-owned stage company. Andre Ward’s theatre owner Forrest, who keeps African tribal masks adorning his patchouli-scented office.

“What we create here is imbued with a spirit of cause, not commerce,” he says, shrugging off Radha’s hopes to get paid and afford rent. In this economy, even a Black-only space can exploit.

A safe space on film

In Residue, the Black community is also wary of their own trying to exploit them. The primary tension in the film isn’t between Black and white Q Street residents. Instead, it’s how the Black community sees Jay as an intruder too.

Dennis Lindsey’s Delonte is especially wary about Jay’s return to Q Street. As far as he’s concerned, Jay, his old childhood friend, is as predatory as the gentrifiers.

The latter’s family moved out the neighbourhood. Their home, a “cornerstone” where the neighbourhood kids used to hang out, was taken away from them; a safe space removed.

Now Jay returns saying he wants to make a film about Q Street, and “give a voice to the voiceless,” mirroring director Merawi Gerima’s own purpose with Residue. But the mention of making a film about Q Street is what makes Delonte put his guard up against Jay.

For Delonte, and the Q Street community, even a Black filmmaker isn’t necessarily creating a safe space for Black people.

That begs the question that all these movies, and so many voices rising up in 2020, are asking: Where exactly are Black voices safe? The movies don’t provide an answer. And, considering the cyclical nature of these conversations, it’s doubtful 2021 will either.


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