Steve McQueen Is on a Mission to Mainstream Black British History with Three New Documentaries

The filmmaker spoke to IndieWire about chronicling pivotal stories of how Black Britons fought against injustice and defined race relations for a generation.
Programme Name: Uprising - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Darcus Howe, Lewisham.  - (C) Syd Shelton - Photographer: Syd Shelton
BBC/Rogan Productions

Steve McQueen’s 2020 anthology film series “Small Axe” grew out of a desire to shed light on Black resistance movements in Britain, between the 1960s and 1980s. So, too, does a complementary new franchise of individual documentaries, executive produced by McQueen, which chronicle pivotal stories from recent British history largely ignored by media. Viewed collectively, the films make it clear that McQueen almost single-handedly aims to disrupt the preferred timeline with films that detail tumultuous crusades for change that cross borders, and still very much resonate today.

“When I was growing up, we did not learn about our own history unfortunately, which is why ‘Roots’ was so popular,” McQueen said, referring to the multiple Emmy-winning 1977 television miniseries. “Anything about any kind of Black history, even if it wasn’t great, or even if it wasn’t necessarily positive, Black people would flock to the television. I remember the streets were empty when ‘Roots’ was on because we were not visible in any way.”

That there was a multifaceted British Black Power movement may come as a surprise to many, and not only those outside the UK. Per McQueen, most British school children study American civil rights history, but not their own civil rights heroes, including Darcus Howe, the prominent writer and activist; incisive leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe; Black nationalist and feminist, Olive Morris who led a Black women’s movement, and others.

The urgency and timeliness of unearthing this history meant that McQueen didn’t have to convince his producers at the BBC to get behind the omnibus project, nor did he make any comprises.

“They were on it right away when I said that I wanted to do it,” he said. “I knew exactly what I wanted and I demanded it. Because I wanted this to be in people’s front rooms. I wanted it to be in the bloodstream of the country, and the only way that could have happened in the U.K. is on the BBC.”

The documentaries — a total of five — begin with “Uprising,” a three-parter co-directed by McQueen and James Rogan. It’s a vivid examination of three 1981 events that collectively defined race relations for a generation.

In January 1981, the New Cross Fire killed 13 young Black people, aged 14 to 22, at a south-east London birthday party. Believed to be racially motivated, the fire and resulting deaths were greeted with governmental indifference, as well as police and media antipathy.

It led to the Black People’s Day of Action in March of the same year, when an estimated 15,000 people from all over the UK marched in solidarity with the victims of the fire and their families. It was described as one of the largest demonstrations against racial injustice in the history of the U.K.

And between April 10 and 12, 1981, the Brixton Uprising, a revolt protesting racial violence at the hands of a primarily white police force, was pivotal to the movement because white youths joined the fight against the establishment.

“It’s almost like my innocence was interrupted that year, and, in a way, it threw me into the present, because it hasn’t stopped,” said McQueen, who also highlighted the March 1981 hunger strike protest by Irish republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands. It inspired McQueen’s feature debut, “Hunger.”

“When I conceived the idea, it was about what was going on before the New Cross Fire, what happened during the fire, and what happened after the fire,” McQueen said. “That incident was a spark. There was a fire that had been raging long before that, and it all came to a head with the Brixton riots, because, for Black people, enough was enough at that point. Also reggae was really coming into its fore, as well as punk rock, so there was a real sense of rebellion.”

Music from reggae legends like Bob Marley provided a sense of identity, as did funk/soul progenitor James Brown, whose “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which first became an anthem for the movement in the U.S. In the U.K., police declared a war of attrition against the music, routinely disrupting night clubs and house parties. The goal was to constantly apply pressure to neutralize any activity that could forment revolutionary action.

“Music saved lives, and for Black people it’s been such a solace,” McQueen said, who also tackled music’s prominent role in British civil rights struggles with “Lovers Rock” and “Alex Wheatle,” two parts of the “Small Axe” series. “Without it, a lot of people wouldn’t be walking this planet any more.”

“Uprising” is supplemented by two additional documentaries on which McQueen is executive producer.

“Black Power: A British Story of Resistance,” directed by George Amponsah, reveals how the movement came into being in the late 1960s and casts fresh light on the story of the young Black people who challenged the British establishment, and helped shape the UK’s political and cultural landscape.

“Subnormal,” directed by newcomer Lyttanya Shannon, examines one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education, when Black parents, teachers, and activists banded together in the 1960s and ’70s to uncover and contest the otherwise unchallenged practice of sending a disproportionate number of Black children to schools for the so-called “educationally subnormal.” In contention is the impact that being in that environment had on the students once they left, as debates about race and intelligence refuse to relent still today.

The documentaries lead up to recent Black Lives Matter protests that begun in the U.S., as the struggle to keep up with history, is neutralized by the realization that little is changing in the process.

“The main thing that’s happened to rectify this history is that a few people have been given a lot of money in order to cool the temper,” McQueen said. “Nothing much more than that, because progress is about us. I think we as Black people have to rethink how we want to go forward as a people, and how we want to deal with things in a way that leads to progress. Because some of us are being bought out. But not everything is about bloody money.”

It’s a history analogous to civil rights struggles in other countries with majority white rule. What “Small Axe” and these complementary documentaries do is recognize that there were congruent movements for Black liberation globally. For instance, from 1964 to 1982, Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held captive at Robben Island, under Apartheid rule in South Africa, as the fight against oppression forged forward outside prison walls.

The Amponsah-directed “Black Power” charts how the British movement grew out of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. — which produced leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Kwame Ture — although the British Black power movement, children of the Windrush generation, embraced the more radical politics of Malcolm X and Ture, who challenged the philosophy of King’s nonviolence and interracial alliances.

“We were Marcus Garvey people in England, because we came from the same place, the West Indies, Jamaica,” McQueen said. “And also, Trinidad and Grenada were very rebellious places. C.L.R James, Stokely Carmichael, were both from Trinidad. Malcolm X’s mother is from Grenada. His father was a Marcus Garvey follower. So, the West Indies, are not easy people. We come from rebel country and we brought that with us.”

The documentary franchise is framed primarily as a conflict between state police and Black Britons. As McQueen acknowledged, the police are pawns ignorant of how disposable they themselves are, and how much they have in common with the targets of their ire, batons, and guns.

“I think the police are the front line for the authorities, which has been evident since I was growing up as a child,” he said. “But what’s funny and sad about it, is that, in the U.K., white people did not have a clue about any of this, until the Stephen Lawrence case that brought corruption of the police to the forefront.”

The Stephen Lawrence case is regarded as a landmark moment in recent British history. In 1993, Lawrence, an 18-year-old Black student from London was killed in a racially motivated attack. Five suspects were arrested, but none were charged, which led to a public inquiry that formally branded the police force as institutionally racist.

“I think it was a big turning point, because the broader community began to understand what Black people had been screaming about for over 50 years, and how corrupt and racist the police were,” McQueen said. “Unfortunately it always seems to take a tragic death for that to happen. Look at George Floyd. A man had to suffer for nine-and-a-half minutes with an officer’s knee on his neck, to die in the most awful way, during a pandemic. That’s how horrendous things have to get before white people want to acknowledge the fact that something might be wrong in para-fucking-dise.”

Police violence punctuated with racism are a decades-old shared experience across the African diaspora that hasn’t been fully reckoned with, which McQueen’s films underline. Some of the most telling moments come not from activists, but from former police officers, candid in their recollections of how racism manifested (and continues to manifest) itself among their ranks. In the UK, many were (and may still be) National Front sympathizers (the far-right political party), not-so unlike American police forces infiltrated by members of the K.K.K., racist skinheads, and other white supremacist groups.

“This is a story that anyone could tell you from any region — United States, South America, continental Europe, and elsewhere,” McQueen said. “This isn’t one isolated story in one country. It’s very familiar to a lot of Black people, unfortunately. Look at Brazil, for example. The way Black people are being just shot in the streets like dogs, it’s enraging. There’s never been a civil rights movement there. No one’s being brought up to account.”

McQueen hopes that his chronicling of this specific history that had wide-reaching consequences, pricks the bubble of complacency on issues that have lingered for decades. And after three narrative feature films and five documentaries, he’s exhausted the subject matter with no immediate plans to do more in any other format.

“I think I’m done for now,” he said. “I’m just really happy that we got to the end, and whether things happen as a result, we can only hope. But these these stories are now out in the world, so no one can claim ignorance anymore. A generation decided it would no longer condone how British society defined it, and fought back. That was very important for me, that they are tightly interwoven into the fabric of British history.”

The three-part “Uprising,” as well as “Black Power: A British Story of Resistance” and “Subnormal,” are available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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