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Steve McQueen Highlights Necessary Histories with New Documentaries

Director Steve McQueen’s newest Prime Video documentaries on West Indian and Caribbean life in 20th century London are necessary viewing. In a style similar to Ava DuVernay’s 13th, the Academy Award-winning director stitches together archival footage and thoughtful interviews that spotlight the violent history of some of London’s most vulnerable communities. Subnormal: A British Scandal, Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, and Uprising document the racially motivated atrocities that plagued black and brown neighborhoods across London in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and captures the delicate maneuverings of McQueen’s cinematic eye.

Last year, McQueen created and directed the Small Axe anthology, starring Letitia Wright, John Boyega, Sharlene Whyte, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy, and others, and that too told the story of West Indian immigrants fighting all manner of systemic oppression, through five powerful episodes.

According to interviews with the BBC, McQueen had been working on these projects for at least the last decade, developing stories that could communicate the timelessness of each incident and that would highlight the human cost of systemic failures at work in London.

 Darcus Howe, civil rights activist, at a protest in London (Credit: Horace Ove)

For instance, the newest documentaries cover some of the most significant events in race relations history in London, particularly in New Cross. The film Uprising focuses on then tensions with police and the West Indian community living there, as well as the growing support for the fascist National Front movement that seemed to surround neighborhoods at will.

What occurred the night of January 18, 1981, was nothing short of a catastrophe, when a house party ended in flames and with the deaths of 13 young black attendees.

From Uprising (Credit: Prime Video)

It was widely believed at the time that the fire was a racially motivated attack, even after investigators claimed that forensics proved otherwise. The fact remained that tensions were real in New Cross, and systemic oppressions targeting largely West Indian communities went unchecked.

What followed the harrowing event was the Black People’s Day of Action, a massive demonstration to bring attention to the injustices pervading black and brown communities in London. The documentary shines a necessary light on the civil rights movements that catapulted necessary conversations beyond the confines of these neighborhoods.

Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith in Education. (Credit: GQ)

Subnormal, directed by Lyttanya Shannon (Dispatches, Our Borough: Love & Hustle), navigates the same space McQueen’s 2020 anthology installment Education does and reckons with British education practices of the 60’s and 70’s that targeted black children. At the time, the conversation was that race and intelligence worked part and parcel, irrevocably bound, and almost always indicating a particular race’s aptitude for success.

This led to the scandal that saw countless black and brown children labeled as “educationally subnormal” and paired with the work done by Shannon and McQueen in the documentary, illuminates the push for justice by parents, educators, and activists across London at the time.

From the Brixton uprising in 1981 (Credit: Tim Ring/Alamy)

These documentaries expand on the conversation put forward by McQueen and his contemporaries who refuse to allow these stories to die. They compel a reckoning still yet to manifest in spaces where institutional and systemic powers force minorities to the outskirts. They are, as mentioned before, necessary viewing but also crucial in remembering the fight for justice that extends beyond our own backyard.

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