Darcus Howe, CLR James, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove”
By Julia Gaffield
A highlight of the catastrophic year 2020 was the release of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series on Amazon Prime. For five consecutive weeks, Marlene Daut, Grégory Pierrot, Chelsea Stieber, and I gathered on Zoom and Telegram for watch parties as each new film was released.
The films are devastating, joyful, heartbreaking, and inspiring.
The first film in the series is “Mangrove,” which tells the story of the popular Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill that was a cultural, intellectual, and activist hub for Caribbean immigrants, many of whom came to England after World War II — the so-called “Windrush Generation.”
The film — based on true events — documents the chronic harassment that the community suffered at the hands of white police officers in the 1960s and 70s. The “Mangrove Nine,” were charged with inciting a riot in 1970 after Frank Crichlow, the owner of the restaurant, and Darcus Howe, a journalist and member of the British Black Panthers, organized a protest.
At the 40:55 marker of the film, the film shows a poster of Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines in full military garb, standing stoically next to the red and blue Haitian flag.
Anyone who knows the four of us as scholars of nineteenth-century Haiti knows that we lost it!
The movie is replete with images of important figures in Black history (another example is that of Paul Bogle, the leader of the Jamaican Morant Bay Rebellion, whose image adorns the wall above the cash register in the restaurant), but the image of Dessalines was especially amazing because it was also surprising.
When pop culture has paid attention to the Haitian Revolution it has usually favored Toussaint Louverture over Dessalines. Louverture is now almost universally celebrated as an icon of Black freedom and anti-slavery. Internationally, he is portrayed as a savvy diplomat, while Dessalines is depicted as being radical to the point of brutishness.