Darcus Howe, CLR James, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove”

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; Darcus Howe, a journalist and member of the British Black Panthers; and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a scientist and member of the British Black Panters, 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.

I wrote a short essay about the symbolism of Dessalines in this film, but as I went back to figure out the details of the scene, a much more complicated narrative emerged.

The image that made the watch party scream is a print of a painting that was done by an anonymous artist in honor of the 150th anniversary of Haitian independence in 1954 — sixteen years before the setting of “Mangrove.”

The image appears partially obscured, hanging on the wall in the Mangrove Restaurant and it serves as a scene transition to a conversation between Crichlow and Howe who are seated at a table.

As the camera focuses on the poster, Howe speaks.

“Trinidad has been remade, Frank,” he says, speaking of the 1970 Black Power Revolution.

“I saw it, I heard it. The revolution has changed the very rhythm of the people’s speech.”

Chelsea later noticed that the cord from the lamp that sits on a shelf in front of the image cuts diagonally across Dessalines’s torso, mimicking the national flag of Trinidad and Tobago. With this visual, the legacy of Dessalines lives on in Trinidad and now — Howe hopes — in London.

I wanted to figure out where in the restaurant the poster was hanging since it hadn’t been obvious in other scenes. As I re-watched the movie and clicked through different scenes — I was surprised to find that there was a second Dessalines poster that I hadn’t previously noticed.

It turns out, the image of Dessalines appears (in part or in full) in four scenes that were set in two locations. The choice of that image was not random at all and in fact, supports a critical part of the narrative.

Dessalines’s image comes progressively into focus over the course of the first half of the film, as Howe’s commitment to overt political action solidifies. This progression is explicitly tied to his relationship with his great uncle, the famous Trinidadian intellectual and chronicler of the Haitian Revolution, CLR James.

The set decorator for the film, Hannah Spice, noted that they included Dessalines’s image here precisely because of his radical and unequivocal stance on Black freedom. “[James’s] analysis of the Haitian revolution demonstrated that by collective mobilisation the slaves were able to achieve their freedom,” Spice told me. “This was an important theme in ‘The Mangrove,’ reiterated by Darcus Howe, and ultimately influencing the Mangrove 9 to act.”

The first glimpse of Dessalines in the film appears in James’s home — the framed image hangs on the wall and the viewer only sees the bottom half. It would be easy to miss it — as I did the first time I watched the film.

A small group gathers around the television to watch Howe give an interview. Howe claims that the community may “seek their revenge against society in another form.” Hinting at, but not committing to, the conclusion that if the police don’t stop harassing them, “the Black community will have to stop them doing it.”

As the television clip ends, James celebrates Howe as a leader and exclaims, “He’ll make a great lawyer one day!”

Howe’s partner, Barbara Beese, agrees, but corrects James:

“But let’s get one thing straight: Darcus isn’t interested in being a barrister. He is interested in change.”

Howe’s successful interview is celebrated at the Mangrove Restaurant too — and here is the second glimpse of Dessalines. A smaller print of the same painting hangs in the dining room of the restaurant. In this scene, Dessalines is more complete but still obscured in the background.

At this point in the film, Howe is not committed to overt action, but the idea — symbolized by the full image of Dessalines — is lurking in the background.

Dessalines next appears following police raids on Howe and Beese’s home and on the Mangrove Restaurant. In the wake of these assaults, Howe turns to James for advice.

He debates leaving London, perhaps evening returning to Trinidad.

In the frame, James looks at Howe while the complete print of Dessalines appears behind Howe in the background — larger than previously but still blurry and unrecognizable to most.

Rather than running away from the London police, James encourages Howe to call forth the spirit of Dessalines and to stay.

“At this moment in history, you could inspire a revolution,” James argues.

Howe finally makes the decision to take to the streets, and this is when Dessalines’s image comes into full focus. The camera rests on the small poster of Dessalines at the Mangrove Restaurant for a full ten seconds; a somewhat legible “Jean-Jacques Dessalines” is even visible beneath the copy of the painting. This is the original scene that caught our attention.

The two men sit at a table as Crichlow flouts Howe’s call to action. To encourage Crichlow to pursue more radical tactics, Howe references his great uncle.

“CLR James have it written,” Howe insists, “these are new men.” “They are leaders but leaders who are rooted deep among those they lead. Now he speaks of you, Frank!”

“This government will never take up its responsibility to you and this community,” Howe continues. “Not unless it sees people on the street. Let us organize a demonstration.”

“Self-movement,” Howe insists.

“Yeah. We march,” Crichlow concedes.

Most US and British viewers will recognize in these scenes the reality of the Black Power movement as an international and chronologically layered struggle with many distinct voices. The triumvirate of Howe, James, and Dessalines in “Mangrove,” suggests McQueen’s appreciation of Dessalines as a transformative leader. While the hero of James’s famous The Black Jacobins is Toussaint Louverture, McQueen distinguishes Howe’s political and intellectual activism from James’s by pushing Dessalines to the fore this time.

Julia Gaffield is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. (juliagaffield.com)