Even for those of us who lived through the declining Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it’s a struggle to recall the shameful state of what used to be called “race relations”. It feels like another country, a place both remote and unfamiliar. It was a place where, to put things at their simplest, Black lives did not matter, and, it was widely assumed, never would. But many still bear the scars from that time.
Steve McQueen’s new documentary series Uprising, broadcast over three evenings this week, is a moving, unblinking piece of storytelling from a brilliant director. It focuses on 1981, a year when race riots raged across cities in England. Those riots have now come to be rebranded as an “uprising”, and McQueen (best known for his award-winning 12 Years a Slave) shows just why that term is an apt one. The lawlessness of 1981 was no accident. We were two nations, and the juxtaposed video of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di in Uprising makes that point without labouring it.
The uprising began with a house fire at 439 New Cross Road on the morning of Sunday 18 January, where a large group had gathered for an all-night birthday party. The fire is believed to have been caused by a petrol bomb thrown from a passing car, following a series of firebomb attacks on the homes and community centres of Black and Asian people in London. Thirteen young Black people died in the New Cross Road blaze, and another survivor took his own life two years later.
The story of the fire is told through well-chosen archive footage from the time, some reconstruction, and the eyewitness accounts of survivors, which are filmed in a very sparse set, their testimonies to being almost burnt alive bringing those awful moments back life. Wayne Haynes, for example, was the DJ at the party. He talks about the extreme heat and his attempts to wipe sticky sweat from his face, only to realise it was his skin beginning to peel off. He leapt from a window, smashing his leg and hip in the process, but miraculously survived. Sandra Ruddock, leafing through her wedding album, tells of how she lost her new husband, Paul, in the fire. These stories are told with great vividness and sensitivity, and with no clumsily judgmental narrator.
For the Black community, it was yet another act of aggression made against them. The reaction from the wider white community seemed indifferent at best, despite witnesses claiming the fire was started deliberately. There was no public inquiry, no parliamentary debate, little media interest. As the slogan of the time went, “13 Dead, Nothing Said”.
As Uprising shows, for years people of colour had not only faced personal abuse and teachers telling their kids they had no future, but also a string of institutionalised persecutions, political oppression and organised attacks. The far-right group the National Front frequently marched through areas where immigrant communities lived, waving union jack flags. But by the time of the Front’s march through Lewisham and New Cross in 1977, a new generation – the children of those who’d arrived in the 1950s and 1960s – were ready to fight back, even if that included the police. To many, law officials were on the wrong side.
George Rhoden, a rare police interviewee, reflects during the documentary on how he felt at the time: conflicted at being called a traitor and having to protect the fascists. He also tells of seeing a fellow officer with an NF badge pinned on the inside of his coat. When he tested the signal on his police radio, he heard monkey noises in response.
The NF called for “compulsory, humane repatriation”, wording that only slightly differed from the Tories, whose policy was “voluntary repatriation”. Margaret Thatcher spoke of people being worried about their culture being “swamped”. Black British citizens were treated as temporary and second-class. But, as McQueen’s documentary highlights, how much has really changed?
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