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Uprising is streaming on BBC iPlayer now.

In their Sight and Sound piece on Alex Wheatle, one of the five films that make up Small Axe, Jay Bernard commented that, with that series, Steve McQueen is “doing the cultural work of narrating the histories of Black British people that for too long have remained in a cultural embargo” (S&S, December 2020). While such work should not be considered a single-handed enterprise, McQueen undoubtedly continues his valuable, high-profile contribution with Uprising, the filmmaker’s first foray into documentary series.

The BBC production, co-directed by McQueen and James Rogan, focuses on the New Cross Fire of January 1981. Thirteen young Black people, celebrating the joint birthday party of 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock and 18-year-old Angela Jackson at the former’s home, were killed in a blaze that was suspected of being racially motivated arson. The inadequate police, media and government responses to the incident led to the formation of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the organisation of the Black People’s Day of Action. The turbulent year then saw the Brixton riots and a significant period of civil unrest in other British cities.

Uprising examines all of this and more. McQueen and Rogan don’t attempt to do anything innovative with documentary form here, relying on archive footage and new interviews with survivors, families and friends of the deceased, police officers, forensic investigators, journalists and activists to create a wide-ranging but always lucid portrait. Made 40 years after the events, the series naturally has a different scope and perspective to Blood Ah Go Run (1982), Menelik Shabazz’s short documentary capturing the Black community’s immediate response. It also eschews entirely the pushy narration and distracting visual elements that marred Ken Fero’s polemic on British police racism Ultraviolence (2020).

Uprising (2021)

Rather, across its three carefully delineated episodes – ‘Fire’, ‘Blame’, and ‘The Front Line’ – Uprising’s primary concern is to give its subjects a voice. Filmed with frank, tender regard, the participants deliver testimonies that are often hauntingly powerful. DJ Wayne Haynes viscerally describes the fire and his injuries; Sandra Ruddock shares memories of her husband Paul and sister-in-law Yvonne, both killed; while Ena, Richard and Denise Gooding recall receiving racist hate mail expressing pleasure at the 13 deaths. The space given to these speakers ensures that Uprising keeps an intimate focus, even as it takes in the wider context, tracing the background to and aftermath of the fire.

Those contexts are particularly deftly sketched in the first episode, which constructs a vivid picture of Britain in the 70s and early 80s, and the tensions running high in south-east London during a period of aggressive policing, strong National Front presence, anti-immigration rhetoric expressed by the Conservative government, and a younger Black British generation unwilling to take it any more. The series doesn’t make a conclusive case for the cause of the fire (two inquiries have returned open verdicts) but it highlights factors that make a racist motive probable – not least the firebombing of other Black spaces in the area in the months preceding the New Cross party.

In part, then, Uprising seeks to replace an idea of Black culpability for the fire with one of Black scapegoating; speakers including Leila Hassan Howe – one of the organisers of the Black People’s Day of Action – note the efforts of police, media and government to “negate the racist attack theory”. But in allowing multiple perspectives to accrue, the series gives the viewer interpretive space. Adamant that the fire was started by racists, Haynes still criticises both the police and the Action Committee for trying to “get one up on each other” during the investigation, while Detective Sergeant Jackie Malton (the inspiration for Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison) defends the police’s approach but also acknowledges some of its failings.

Another part of the series’ intent, though, is to celebrate the collective action of 1981, especially the Black People’s Day of Action march, described here by Linton Kwesi Johnson as “the most powerful expression of Black political power that this country has ever seen”. The final episode, notable for its intelligent, illuminating juxtapositions of police and protester points of view, focuses primarily on the Brixton riots, culminating in reactions to the the Scarman report, which was commissioned to examine the causes of the uprisings. With Bob Marley’s music an important touchstone throughout, the series mobilises ‘Redemption Song’ and Johnson’s poem ‘Towards Closure’ at its graceful, moving end.

Uprising also resonates with each of the Small Axe films in a variety of ways. These include the presence among the interviewees of Alex Wheatle – subject of the fourth of those films – the attention paid to the experiences of Black police officer George Rhoden, and the overriding concern with police harassment and community mobilisation. Yet the scope and depth of the series take it far beyond being a mere addendum to McQueen’s previous project. A potent document in its own right, by turns harrowing, enlightening and inspiring, Uprising is a vital addition to the canon of work centring Black British experience.

Further reading

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

Scenes from a hostile environment: a history of Black British protest film and television

By Ashley Clark

Scenes from a hostile environment: a history of Black British protest film and television

Alex Wheatle shows us that history is not enough

By Jay Bernard

Alex Wheatle shows us that history is not enough