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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

May 19, 2021: Small Axe and America: The Courts and Justice

[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]

On the progressive potential of the court system, and how a frustratingly divisive theoretical frame helps us understand it.

The first of the five Small Axe films, both in the order they were released and in the chronology of their settings and stories, is Mangrove, which tells the compelling true story of a 1960s Caribbean restaurant (the Mangrove) in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood which became the focus of both repeated acts of police brutality and a subsequent criminal case that sought to convict the so-called Mangrove Nine (a group of West Indian activists and community leaders, including the restaurant’s owner Frank Crichlow, who had led communal pushback to the police’s misdeeds) of the serious charges of riot and affray. The majority of the nine beat the charges (and those who were convicted received reduced sentences), thanks in large part to their stirring testimony in the course of the trial (as well as to the efforts of their legal allies), and the case is considered a hugely significant legal advance for Britons of color and for the gradual, haphazard, fraught, yet vital and inspiring move toward a more inclusive and less institutionally racist English society.

The Mangrove Nine case thus represents something about which I’ve thought and written a great deal in an American historical context: the possibility for the court system, and thus the legal and justice systems overall, to serve as a vehicle for progress and equity. Of course far, far far far far far, too often the opposite has been true—not just with racist and discriminatory and exclusionary laws and policies, but also and to me even more frustratingly with the courts themselves supporting and reinforcing and amplifying those legal, political, and social elements. Yet at the same time, court decisions have absolutely advanced numerous social movements and causes throughout American history, from abolition and birthright citizenship as illustrated by my first hyperlinks in this paragraph to the more recent roles of the courts in (for example) opposing President Trump’s Muslim bans (although the Supreme Court unfortunately dropped that ball). At the very least, our history reveals the persistence of this potential progressive role for the courts, and remembering those histories allows for hope for that continued role in the present and future.

Interestingly, one helpful theoretical lens for both remembering and extending that hopeful legacy is something that has become a dirty word for many 21st century Americans (and currently numerous state legislatures): critical race theory. I believe even more thoughtful Americans sometimes see critical race theory as only advancing the more directly critical side of the equation, the one that argues, in the first of CRT’s two founding ideas, “that white supremacy exists and exhibits power maintained over time, and, in particular, that the law plays a role in this process.” But CRT likewise has a more optimistic layer, as illustrated by its second founding idea: “that transforming the relationship between law and racial power, as well as achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination more broadly, are possible.” That sums up quite nicely what I would want to argue about the progressive potential of the courts and the law, a potential exemplified by the Mangrove Nine decision and the inspiring conclusion of Mangrove alike.

Next Axe application tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?

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