Neither Nomadland nor Mangrove are set right now, or even just before right now, in 2019, which is where I’ve mentally sorted any otherwise-very-contemporary stories that, naturally, do not feature multiple characters wearing masks and keeping their distance. Nomadland is specifically set during an election year that now feels like the distant past, taking place mostly over the course of 2012. Mangrove is a real-life courtroom drama that takes place in 1970. Yet–big sigh, deep breath, and then maybe another sigh–both of these New York Film Festival entries are plenty appropriate for our current moment, in ways that alternately seem complementary and diametrically opposed. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is all about our old friend “economic anxiety,” albeit treated with unusual gentleness, while Steve McQueen’s Mangrove is about the kind of racist, violent police harassment that has inspired countless protests in 2020. Both of them have plenty of opportunities to come across as hamfisted in one way or another, and both of them succeed in ways that are somehow both straightforward and oddly miraculous.
Mangrove is going to be the first “episode” of McQueen’s BBC anthology miniseries Small Axe; at NYFF, it went second, following Lovers Rock. Chronologically, the airing order makes more sense, but emotionally, Mangrove makes a strong Lovers Rock follow-up. Set about a decade before the house party in Lovers Rock, Mangrove starts from a similar look community of West Indians making their lives in London: It gets its title from a restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, where West Indian residents can gather, socialize, and have a spicy meal. Displays of Black joy and independence don’t sit well with the local police, so they make it their business to destroy this one, as owner Frank (Shaun Parkes) tries to keep his restaurant afloat. Eventually, the local population mounts a demonstration, with help from Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). Demonstrators are arrested and charged with rioting–sound familiar? The movie then shifts to courtroom drama, as the defendants elect to represent themselves during the trial.
It’s during the second half that something remarkable happens: Stuff that often looks ridiculous in movies–righteous courtroom speeches, defendants speaking up for themselves–takes on a raw immediacy. Seeing the Mangrove 9 speak out, directly and firmly and angrily, against the injustice they’ve experienced, combined with McQueen’s surehanded direction, has a power that so many courtroom showdowns lack. The actors are all terrific, especially Parkes and Wright, and the movie’s sociological observations give way to a clear-eyed rigor that complements Lovers Rock perfectly.
Nomadland also has real-life “characters” speaking for themselves; instead of notable historical figures played by actors, they’re unknown people playing themselves. Professional Actor (and two-time-Oscar-winner-maybe-going-on-three) Frances McDormand is at the center as Fern, a widowed, childless woman who starts living out of her van, traveling around the western portion of the United States, taking on seasonal work where she can. Most of the people she encounters are played by non-actors, sharing names with their not-quite-characters and offering their presumably true-ish stories, tips, and observations about living as a modern nomad.
This could go badly any number of ways: apologia for the economic anxiety that allegedly inspires Trump voters; handheld-cam documentary ambitions imposed upon fiction filmmaking; non-pro actors not having a command of the screen. There’s also a chance Nomadland could have turned out like Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, caught between plainspoken lyricism and mumbling tedium (at least for me; I know plenty of people love The Rider and would be happy to sit through a spiritual companion). McDormand is a difference-maker, skillful enough to blend in with the rest of the cast but more subtly expressive with a polite smile or a moment of disappointment than many genuine pros. But credit goes to Zhao, too. She captures these landscapes (from the open road to the vastness of an Amazon packing center) with such a keen eye for the loneliness and freedom of this sort-of lifestyle, conveying how living this way is both an individualist choice and, for many of those individuals, an attempt to make the best of a terrible, unwinnable situation.
Neither didactic nor especially romantic about the reality of life on the road, Nomadland could nonetheless be mistaken for a series of just-plain-folks, conflict-light testimonials. But it’s hard for me to see how anyone could look at a very late scene where Fern drifts through her old home like a ghost and accuse the movie of avoiding hard truths anymore than the more direct speeches of Mangrove. Both movies are rooted in a specific past year that still manages to feel utterly present.