Fighting back against racism

Lesley Rodin, Great Yarmouth CLP, reviews Uprising, Steve McQueen’s trilogy of films on the fight against racism in the early 1980s.

A follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Small Axe, and co-directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, Uprising was another landmark TV production. Three documentary films, screened on primetime BBC One, chronicle three pivotal historical events that took place forty years ago: the devastating New Cross fire (18 January1981), the Black People’s Day of Action (2 March), and the Brixton Riots (10-12 April). The films are a powerful exposition of growing resistance within the British black community and the fight for justice.

Stylistically, the documentaries are a collage of interwoven personal testimonies with archival footage. The central thread is the tragic and harrowing story of the fire when thirteen young black Britons lost their lives at a birthday party in a private home in New Cross and the subsequent negation by the authorities that it could have been a racially motivated arson attack, declaring an open verdict. This oral retelling of events through interviews with survivors of the fire, family members, police officers, activists and councillors allows for a spectrum of viewpoints and experiences to be shared.

Uprising does not shy away from exposing the institutional and flagrant casual racism of the time. Through oral history, we learn what it was like to grow up in an environment where racist abuse was commonplace and the National Front was on the rise. Particularly alarming are the shocking levels of police intimidation and aggression towards young, black Britons.

Wayne Haynes, a survivor of the fire, talks about how the police would “kick the hell out of you”. Scapegoat politics were also a feature, when young black men were blamed for the recent spate of muggings, reinforced by the racist headlines of the press. The National Front was allowed to march through predominantly black neighbourhoods, chanting their anti-immigration rhetoric with calls for repatriation. In a pre-election interview, soon-to-be Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is seen expressing fears that the country might soon be “swamped” by people with a different culture.

Furthermore, there had taken place a series of racially-motivated arson attacks in the area, including the cultural centre, Moonshot and the Albany Theatre, as well as private homes. Part One concludes with the night of the fire: how a joyous, birthday occasion ended in tragedy as we listen to the visceral and harrowing accounts of the survivors and family members.

Part Two, Blame deals with the aftermath of the fire and the subsequent fight for justice. There was growing outrage at the muted response of the state and police unwillingness to take seriously claims that the fire was another arson attack. This public outcry culminated in the National Black People’s Day of Action, regarded as the most powerful expression of black political power ever seen in this country, attended by over 20,000 people. Through documentary footage, we witness a cordon of police in riot gear attempting to prevent marchers entering corporate London. In what became known as the ‘Battle of Blackfriars Bridge’, the demonstrators manage to reach Fleet Street, which was running the police line on the fire, to be met by boos and racist abuse from the windows above. Predictably, tabloid headlines the following day spoke of “rampage of the mob” (Daily Express) and “The day the blacks ran riot in London” (The Sun).

Growing resistance to police intimidation and the indifference of the state reach a climax in Part Three, The Front Line. This hostile relationship was exacerbated by the introduction of the SUS Law, referred to as ‘Operation Swamp’, which gave the police carte blanche to arrest anyone they suspected was about to commit a crime. One particular violent confrontation triggered the devastating Brixton riots. The subsequent expression of polarised viewpoints on the riots is noteworthy; while Margaret Thatcher was prepared to disregard police oppression, her rhetoric focusing on ‘mob violence’, Gus John, a local black activist discusses ‘moral relativism’; the tendency to moralise about the conduct of those who are resisting oppression, but the willingness to live with the conduct of those who oppress them.

Uprising is an extraordinary viewing experience and groundbreaking in its focus on historical events that have never been explored in a media project of this scale and yet resonate profoundly in contemporary Britain.  It is not only a story of resistance, but one of grief and trauma which demands an end to racial discrimination.

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