Before the launch of the BBC1 documentary series Uprising, New Cross fire survivors discussed the impact events had on their lives 40 years ago in a poignant panel discussion hosted by Brenda Emmanus.
Following his critically acclaimed Small Axe anthology, for his latest project, Steve McQueen joined James Rogan to create Uprising, their poignant retelling of seminal moments in 1981 which traced the lead up to the New Cross fire in which 13 young Black people died; its aftermath; and finally the Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton Riots.
Survivors of the New Cross fire, Wayne Haynes and Denise Gooding, shared their perspective of the traumatic events of 1981 and also acted as contributors to the three-part BBC1 documentary, which first aired on 20 July.
Mainstream history has largely overlooked this important chapter in British history, but with the testimony from those who lived through these traumatic and turbulent events, the series reveals how these moments redefined race relations for a generation.
Episode one of the series opens with a smattering of reminders of what most of Britain was preoccupied with at the time, but then gradually narrows to focus specifically on the families and wider social circle of those affected by the fire and its aftermath.
At the time, seeing racist, anti-immigrant National Front group marching through predominantly Black and mixed culture neighbourhoods like Lewisham was commonplace. While the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half might suggest otherwise, there is certainly greater legislative protection and push back from non-Black allies than in the 80s. Back then, the Black community faced racial injustices largely alone; with an apathetic government and a disinterested police force providing no safety. Thus, being involved in the production was distinctly cathartic for Wayne.
He told the panel: “Being allowed to tell your story how it was and for what it is, it’s a release. We have carried these stories around for 40 years and no matter how much we tried to put it down, we can’t. I’ve been able to get my story out and inform people of how we were living and the things that we had to go through.”
Denise agreed. She said: “It’s like therapy; for once we can tell our story in its entirety.” Both Wayne and Denise alluded to the fact that the entire truth in this retelling of the story was not bent around or conformed to mainstream journalism’s white gaze or politically correct narrative. That the uncomfortable parts that others may have edited out, were deliberately left in in this telling of those three watershed moments in Black British history.
The role of tireless Black activists before the time of the fire took centre stage in the discussion, as it laid the groundwork for the eruption of support for social unrest that was the Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton Riots
Also on the discussion panel were members of the production team, including executive producer Nancy Bornat and series producer Helen Bart. Helen stressed that the role of Black activism in leading protests and civil disobedience predates the 1981 tragedy by decades, largely due to the work of people like Roxy Harris and Michael La Rose (featured in the docuseries).
The unfettered access to the deepest and most painful recollections of many of those involved was credited to the immersive and sensitive approach executive producer Nancy Bornat took while gathering testimonials. It was this delicate handling and gentle patience in eventually gaining their trust that was a panacea to what McQueen called a “profound insensitivity towards the Black community”.
During the panel discussion, the age-old question resurfaced: why doesn’t the wider public know more about these aspects of British history? The answer is as complex as the history itself. Despite the story of the New Cross Fire and the following days of action being taught during Black History Month; the panel agreed that the people who died in the fire were first generation Black British and their deaths and the events surrounding them should be British history full stop and should therefore be taught all year round.
McQueen and Rogan paid tribute to the pioneering Black film maker Menelik Shabazz, whose creation of a Black Filmmaker Magazine & Festival was in direct response to mainstream film industry’s refusal to fund his projects. Placing docuseries like Uprising on prime-time TV ensures that there is cross cultural national viewing of the work, which would previously only have been accessible to and seen by small niche audiences.
Wrapping up the hour-long panel discussion, McQueen challenged the system that has kept these stories in the dark for so long. He said: “We [the directors] took the opportunity [to make this series]. No one gave us anything. Why has it taken 40 years to get something like this onto British [mainstream] tv?… Because of racism. Black film makers didn’t have the opportunities and therefore couldn’t produce [work like this] Thank you BBC but guess what, where were you all those years ago? Let’s grab those opportunities when we have the chance.”
All three episodes of Uprising are now available on BBC1 iPlayer.