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Uprising review: Powerful personal testimonies make Steve McQueen’s documentary unmissable viewing

This nuanced three-part documentary, co-directed by McQueen and James Rogan, focuses on the New Cross Fire and its aftermath

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n the early hours of January 18, 1981, a fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road, where a group had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock and 18-year-old Angela Jackson. The blaze would kill 13 young black people and injure more; one survivor died by suicide two years later.

Denise Gooding, who had tagged along to the party with her older brothers, recalls trying to escape the burning building as smoke engulfed her vision. “I’m only 11 and I remember thinking, I haven’t even lived my life,” she says. Gooding, whose brother Andrew died in the fire, is one of the interviewees who share powerful testimonies in Uprising, a three-part documentary co-directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan.

Skillfully weaving together these personal accounts with archive footage and contemporary music, the filmmakers lay out the fraught political atmosphere and deep-seated racial prejudices of the late Seventies and early Eighties with economy. The police would “take you in the van and kick the hell out of you,” one interviewee says; fellow contributor George Rhoden, one of the only black officers in the Met at the time, recalls another officer showing him his National Front badge.

Protesters marching during the Black People’s Day of Action

/ BBC/Rogan Productions/Getty Images

The National Front were advocating for the “repatriation of coloured immigrants, including those born here,” claiming “the fact they are born here doesn’t make them British.” Similar rhetoric had seeped into mainstream politics, too, with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives playing upon concerns about immigration. In a 1978 interview, shortly before her election victory, the future Prime Minister claims that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”

It was widely believed that the blaze at New Cross Road was the result of a petrol bomb thrown in from the street (there had been a spate of similar attacks in the area, targeting the black community), though the investigation by the police and fire service suggested that the fire could have broken out in the front room of the house. The inquest returned an open verdict (a second inquest in 2002 had the same result).

The apathy of the establishment in the face of this tragedy was the galvanising force behind the Black People’s Day of Action weeks later, which is the focus of Uprising’s second episode. The protest saw around 20,000 people march in support of the victims and their families, with “13 dead and nothing said” as their rallying cry. The final instalment is titled ‘The Front Line,’ a nod to Railton Road in Brixton, where riots broke out in April, following a sustained police campaign of stop and search (named Operation Swamp, perhaps a nod to Thatcher’s comment).

Scenes from the Brixton riots

/ BBC/Rogan Productions/Alamy Stock Photo

These are events that have shaped race relations in the UK significantly, yet they have never been explored on primetime television in a project of this scale. The array of voices featured - from fire survivors like Gooding, her brother Richard and Wayne Hayes to activists, community leaders, journalists, police officers and protesters - allows McQueen and Rogan to tell the story of those early months of 1981 from many perspectives. The result is a deeply nuanced narrative made all the more powerful for its personal touches. The directors don’t labour the contemporary parallels, but they jump out all the same.

There are many echoes of Small Axe, McQueen’s recent anthology series, too. Alex Wheatle, the subject of one of Small Axe’s films, appears as a contributor, and when Rhoden tells his story, there are obvious parallels with Red, White and Blue, which starred John Boyega as black Met officer Leroy Logan. The most poignant counterpoint, though, is Lovers Rock, where McQueen’s gorgeous reconstruction of a blues party reminds us how the gathering at 439 New Cross Road should have played out.

Uprising is on BBC One, tonight at 9pm and continues tomorrow at the same time. Catch up on BBC iPlayer