Small Axe’s Steve McQueen is back with another devastating documentary series covering one of the biggest and most impactful events in black British history: the New Cross fire.
Over three hours, this emotive and stirring documentary series tells of 1981’s race riots – now known as the uprising – which were triggered by the New Cross fire which occurred on the 18th of January that year. The fire killed thirteen young black British people, and is widely believed to have been an act of targeted arson, committed by racists. The series examines the impact of this event, first exploring attitudes towards race before the fire – unsurprisingly, the realities of racial attitudes in the 1970s and early 80s are horrifying. Police are publicly racist, black children are told by their teachers they will amount to nothing, and the media is disproportionately reporting crimes committed by young black men.
We hear from the people who lived in the New Cross area, the survivors of the fire, and the family members of those who died. Plus, police officers are interviewed, as well as activists who rose up following the fire. The story is told thoroughly and with in-depth emotional insight into the impact on the community. And this is what makes Uprising so devastating and brilliant – there are tales told of people who escaped the fire by chance after choosing to leave early, accounts from people living in the New Cross community, including Wayne Hayes, who was DJ-ing that night, and people still, some forty years later, in disbelief that they survived. It’s a remarkably intimate portrait not only of that night, but of the community and culture in that area of South-East London.
And it’s this honest and intimate feel that makes this series so astonishing, but also infuriating – McQueen has created a human, real and moving series which effectively demonstrates the horrors endured by British black people in history, and the devastation that was ignored by the authorities.
The critics have been full of praise for Uprising, with Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian calling it “brilliant and furious and human.” She says: “It is expertly done, pieced together in relay, as each person picks up a thread and weaves it into the overall picture.” In the Independent, Sean O’Grady calls this “a moving, unblinking piece of storytelling from a brilliant director,” and points out, “McQueen’s documentary highlights, how much has really changed?” And The Times’s James Jackson seems to agree, saying the series is “depressingly well timed,” and acts as not just history, “but a warning against complacency.” He adds: “The strength of the film was allowing the survivors simply to tell the story, the memories edited in a crisscrossing way so as to give an unusually intense impression of the inferno, which broke out during an all-night birthday party.”
First shown July 2021. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.