From the perspective of 2021, in a world of “microaggressions” and accusations of dogwhistle politics, it was genuinely startling to watch the final episode of Uprising (BBC One) and witness the following exchange from the early 1980s.
An interviewer asked Les Curtis, then chairman of the Police Federation, if a police officer should lose his job for using the N-word to address a black man. “No, indeed not. Why should he be dismissed for calling him a n—-r?” “Because it’s a term of abuse?” offered the interviewer. “That’s a matter of opinion,” Curtis replied.
The contributors to Steve McQueen’s documentary series, which revisited the 1981 New Cross fire and the Brixton riots of that same year, spoke fiercely and eloquently of the racism they suffered at the hands of the police. So it was not a surprise that a police representative held those beliefs, but to hear them expressed so openly was something else.
Uprising is a companion piece to McQueen’s Small Axe drama series, documenting the experiences of black Britons. It is a project made with love and care and a sense of outrage that the fire, which claimed 13 young lives, has received so little attention.
The second episode explored the activism born of those times. The third episode dealt with the riots in Brixton that spread across the country – just when Britain was supposedly united in happiness at the prospect of a royal wedding.
Calling them “riots” is a loaded term. Here, they were “uprisings” against police oppression. One man described the experience of being stopped and searched: “People think it’s, ‘Oh, I just want to check your pockets.’ It wasn’t like that. When they stopped you, it was a punch first.’” That man went on to arm himself with a scaffolding pole during the unrest, declaring that “we wanted to hurt the police any way we could.” McQueen included several police officers among the contributors, who spoke of fearing for their lives.
Alex Wheatle, the writer and subject of one of the Small Axe films, said: “People might doubt our methods, but no doubt it made people take notice that if you’re oppressing people for so long, one day they’re going to rise up.”
Small Axe aired last year to critical acclaim but low ratings. Uprising, I imagine, will do the same. It’s not easy viewing. But it is timely. Earlier this month, McQueen explained why it needed to be made. “We have to get through the trauma to get to the joy,” he said. “People want to go straight to the joy… but unfortunately we’ve got to do the homework.”