The British director released three new documentary films this year, airing on the BBC in July and landing on Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 17. Each covers stories of Black resistance and resilience in the UK in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, amid the country's long history of systemic racism and police violence — and one that continues today.
The documentaries — Uprising, Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, and Subnormal: A British Scandal — unpack the real events depicted in McQueen's Small Axe film series, the director's "love letter to Black resilience" in Britain's West Indian community between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. The films are set within or represent true stories of widespread racism, police brutality and harassment, and those at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the UK demanding justice.
Here's a short explainer on what each documentary covers and where you can stream it.
A three-part series directed by McQueen and James Rogan, Uprising covers three connected events from 1981: the New Cross Fire that killed 13 young Black people at a house party in South London on Jan. 18, the Black People's Day of Action on March 2, and the Brixton Uprising from April 10, speaking to people who were present at these events.
The first part, Fire, focuses on the night itself, when a fire engulfed a party celebrating the birthday of Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson at 439 New Cross Road in South London. Amid a time of racist violence, police harassment, and rising tensions in the '70s and '80s, the young Black British community found solace in jubilant house parties like this, as seen in McQueen's film Lover's Rock.
The second part, Blame, deals with the aftermath of the fire, the experiences of the victims and their families, as well as the community's response and the anger mounting toward the police investigation into how the fire started. It's widely believed that the fire was intentionally started in a racist attack. At the time, however, police dropped this line of inquiry due to a claimed lack of forensic evidence and instead pivoted to detaining and questioning the party's attendees — some of whom were reportedly encouraged to sign false statements.
Local activists formed the New Cross Massacre Action Committee in order "to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, challenge the indifference shown by the government and highlight distorted media coverage," according to the George Padmore Institute. This led to the Black People's Day of Action on March 2, when a mass demonstration was held to bring attention to the loss of these young Black lives and demand justice.
The third section, The Front Line, details the huge amount of protests across the country following this, leading to the Brixton Uprising on April 10, 1981. After relentless police brutality and blatantly racist stop-and-search targeting through "Operation Swamp", a three-day confrontation occurred between police and the Black community in Brixton, London. The rising tension was also due to structurally racist unemployment levels, especially among young Black men. The Small Axe film Alex Wheatle centred around the eponymous British author, who was arrested and jailed as a teenager during the Brixton Uprising.
Narrated by Daniel Kaluuya and directed by George Amponsah, Black Power: A British Story Of Resistance takes a broader look at the civil rights movement in the UK in the '60s and '70s. The documentary focuses on leading racial justice campaigners like Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe (played by Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby in McQueen's Small Axe film Mangrove), and Roy Sawh, and activist groups including the British Black Panthers, the Fasimbas, and the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS) founded by civil rights activist Michael X.
The film looks at key moments of collective action against systemic racism in Britain, including the the Mangrove Nine represented in the film Mangrove, the Spaghetti House siege, and the Oval Four —Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, George Griffiths, and Constantine "Omar" Boucher — who were wrongfully charged on the evidence of a corrupt police officer, and only saw their convictions overturned nearly 50 years later.
Directed by Lyttanya Shannon, Subnormal: A British Scandal investigates racism in Britain's education system in the '60s and '70s. McQueen told the Guardian his Small Axe film Education was inspired by his "own narrative within that time in the early '70s and the [issue of] educationally subnormal schools," a racist strategy that saw hundreds of Black children moved out of mainstream schools and into those for the so-called "educationally subnormal," or ESN, something notably written about by Grenadian writer Bernard Coad in his book, How The West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System.
In the documentary, Shannon looks into how schools set up IQ tests deliberately for Black migrant children to fail, and how Black parents and teachers united to expose these practices to the community and demand change, featuring interviews with many who were there during this time. Their collective action ultimately led to the amendment of the Race Relations Act to prevent racial bias in education — though even today, most black British children report experiencing racism at school. Subnormal also examines the traumatic lasting impact the practice has had on people affected, speaking to several former ESN students about their experiences.