In Mangrove, actor Sam Spruell plays an overtly racist white police officer.
A new film from Steve McQueen, and one of five being told in an anthology series, it tells the true story of the Mangrove Nine – a group of black activists who in 1970 were accused of incitement to riot and affray following a peaceful protest in Notting Hill.
It shows the systemic racism in the police at the time and Spruell’s character, PC Frank Pulley, is the worst of the lot; an officer seemingly determined to bring down the Mangrove Café and its owner, Frank Crichlow.
With not one redeeming feature, Spruell tells Sky News’ Backstage podcast it wasn’t easy to find a way to understand him, but he had to – so he looked back to former MP Enoch Powell and his inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, which strongly criticised mass immigration.
“I grew up around quite a lot of people like Pulley, but also I looked at the time and I think my way in [to the character] was really Enoch Powell,” he says.
“That was part of the soundtrack to that time, ’68 and beyond, where his Rivers of Blood speech really did ignite a kind of anti-immigrant feeling.
“I think it would have been a touchstone for PC Pulley, the sentiment that was being projected through that speech, and also would have really chimed with the confusion he felt about where his country was going, having just had, the Windrush and stuff like that.
“A largely white population was suddenly a much more multicultural population, and I think people like Frank Pulley would have found that very confusing. And also he wasn’t overly bright and so to try and accommodate different cultures in his mind, I think he would have found that really difficult.”
Despite being set decades ago, the film’s themes of systemic police racism, peaceful protests turned ugly by officers, and white privilege are very timely given the Black Lives Matter movement which has risen this year.
PC Pulley is seen deliberately targeting and injuring innocent black men and encouraging others to do so, too.
Spruell, who is known for roles in Snow White And The Huntsmen and Taken 3, admitted playing someone he fundamentally disagrees with was not easy.
“I think when you’re playing someone so unlike yourself, who holds views that are diametrically opposed to the ones that you hold personally and who is kind of intrinsically pretty cruel, I think to make those characters convincing you have to go to a very dark place in yourself,” he says. “So if you’re accessing that, it does take a toll.
“And you can’t just shrug it off, and I think for a few weeks after playing a character like that… they’re hard, they’re hard to finish.
“Luckily, I’ve got a son who’s young and wants me just to be normal, and so I come home and just play with him, and that’s quite a good antidote.”
The film depicts the landmark court case that saw the Mangrove Nine fighting charges they should never have had laid against them.
Court room scenes see tensions bubbling over as the defendants – some of whom are representing themselves – try to fight a system that’s programmed against them.
Spruell said that tension felt very real during filming.
“I think when you’re doing scenes like that, everyone remains in character slightly, even if, like, the director shouts cut and then you have a little chat with the actor next to you or whatever,” he says.
“Actually, the people playing Mangrove and myself, we weren’t talking that much… I think everyone needed to stay in character to keep the tension of the piece, and that was quite tough to do.
“I’m playing a really horrible person and so to maintain that animosity, I think it was tough for everyone but necessary for the piece.”
McQueen is a director known for telling important stories.
From his debut film Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, to his Oscar-winning Twelve Years A Slave, adapted from a slave memoir, the filmmaker educates audiences, bringing their attention to subjects others may find uncomfortable to address.
The Small Axe anthology sees him creating content for television for the first time, while sticking to the feature-length format.
Mangrove was the first time Spruell had worked with the director.
“He’s a really enthusiastic, really positive filmmaker, but he’s also kind of in a state of agitation quite often until he finds what he wants to find,” the actor says. “It’s invigorating working with someone like that.
“Also, if you’re an actor like me, you just dream of working with those kind of directors, auteur directors who every time they make something, people are talking about it, people are kind of shocked or moved – he creates a stir, and I mean, as a creative, you just want to be part of that.”
Mangrove will air on BBC One on 15 November. Hear more from Sam Spruell and our review of Mangrove on this week’s Backstage podcast, and see our interview with Steve McQueen on Sky News TV and online on Saturday