Steve McQueen on his new docuseries 'Uprising,' the power of reggae music, and British politics: 'Well, it's not going well, that's for sure'
- Oscar-winning director
Steve McQueen's new docuseries is streaming on Amazon Prime.
- The three-part series is a companion to his "Small Axe" series and centers on the 1981
New Cross fire.
- McQueen spoke to Insider about making his first documentaries as well as the state of Britain today.
The first episode of "Uprising," Steve McQueen's follow-up or, rather, companion docuseries to his groundbreaking "Small Axe" series, opens with a rolling collection of striking black-and-white images.
We see a buoyant Margaret Thatcher amongst supporters, protestors on the streets holding signs depicting the faces of Irish republican activists Bobby Sands and Patsy O'Hara, and, finally, the image of a smoldering south London townhouse.
The year is 1981, as the opening titles states, and "thirteen young black British people died after a house party ended in flames" at 439 New Cross Road in south east London. All those who died that evening were between the ages of 14 and 22. And one survivor, unable to live with the memory of the trauma, took their own life two years later.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the fire, but it's widely considered to be a racist attack as the British white supremacy group, The National Front, had a growing presence in the area. Also, the homes of Black and Asian families had become frequent targets in racist attacks.
The fire, however, has remained etched in the consciousness of Black Britons and inspired two of the most important public demonstrations in British history: The Black People's Day of Action and the Brixton riots, which, keen observers will remember runs through the "Alex Wheatle" episode of McQueen's "Small Axe" series.
"Uprising" inspects these events in three arresting episodes, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, alongside two companion documentaries that McQueen executive produced: "Black Power: A British Story of Resistance" and "Subnormal: A British Scandal," which chronicles the community fight against racism in British schools.
McQueen spoke to Insider about "Uprising," which he co-directed alongside British documentarian James Rogan, as well as the reception "Small Axe" received from audiences, the power of reggae music, and the state of contemporary British politics.
Steve McQueen had a very personal relationship to the 1981 fire
Insider: Steve, you must have been pretty young at the time of the fire in 1981, right? What's your relation to the New Cross fire and the events that followed? Do you remember when you first became aware of what happened?
Steve McQueen: Well, I was 11 years old, and 1981 was a very strange year for Black people in the UK. At that time, so many things were happening. Whether it was you being 11 years old or 21 or 31, you would have felt it. And I remember it very well, you know, going to school and hearing all the conversations and TV and the atmosphere in the air. It was very tense. It was a very tense time. And, of course, my relationship with the fire was that someone always knew someone who was involved with the fire.
And what was it about this story that you thought lent to documentary instead of fiction or the gallery?
I obviously touched on the New Cross fire in "Small Axe," but I knew I could never make it into a drama. If I was to do anything at all about it, it had to be a documentary because somehow the time didn't lend itself to a drama. And, you know, teaming up with James Rogan to make these documentaries was great.How did you find the collaboration? Because you're what people would consider an auteur with a singular vision.
Well, I am an auteur and I am singular, but that doesn't have to be put on the side. There's no other way I can work. But at the same time, you're listening, you're finding out things. This is the first time I've come into this form, but I also knew how I wanted it to look. I knew how I wanted it to sound. I know how I wanted it to feel and anyone looking at the documentary can see that.
One thing that I found really interesting and moving about "Uprising" was the use of reggae music, particularly the music of Bob Marley and how here it's returned to its radical tradition. Like all Black Brits, I've grown up with Bob Marley's music, but as I've got older it's sort of been co-opted by a subsection of hippie and hipster culture.
Oh yeah! Was this something you have been conscious about or were consciously trying to challenge?
No, not at all ... It just goes back to the message and to music, which is powerful. That kind of music never dies. It's eternal. It's so powerful that it can relate to 50 years ago as much as it relates to today, so that's the legacy of Bob Marley. And reggae, a lot of reggae acts in general.
McQueen says 'the past will catch up' unless it's dealt with in society
One of the most shocking things to see in "Uprising" is how many of the struggles and the systems that Black people were fighting against in 1981 have been re-imagined and repurposed today. So what do you think specifically about the direction the UK is going in and this government that we have today?
Well, it's not going well, that's for sure. It seems like people don't want to solve things. They just want to put a lid on things. But once you put a lid on something, sooner or later, it's gonna explode. So if they don't learn from the past, unfortunately, the past will catch up with them again.
I mean, there was the rise of 10 years ago [2011 England riots] ... things are not getting much better. Has there been any improvement? It's about education. It's about investing in proper education. It's about solving things and I think people seem not to be wanting to or bothered to. These things aren't difficult to solve, but then you have to have the want and the need to do it. You can have a need, but they have to have a want to do it, and that's it really.
It's kind of appalling to think that, you know, these things are solvable but somehow people are turning their back on it. Maybe because it's Black and poor people, I don't know. I mean, look what happened with Grenfell. We are not being listened to. So, unfortunately, you know, as Martin Luther King said, riots are the voice of the unheard.
As an artist, you do what you can within the medium in order to elevate, illustrate, and illuminate, and then you leave it up to whoever to do what they can about it. That's about it.
On the ground here in the UK, "Small Axe" was one of the biggest events for some time. And there's even been a resurgence of writing about people like Altheia Jones-LeCointe [Member of the Mangrove 9] who's featured in the series. How do you feel about the response that you got for "Small Axe" from audiences?
It was amazing; the fact that children and parents and grandparents were watching it altogether. That was the most interesting thing and the most important thing, to have generations of people watching it and having those discussions of what happened back then and what's happening now.
And of course, yes, I'm very proud of the fact that it has brought certain things, which had been buried, into the light, and things have been re-evaluated. So sometimes as a filmmaker or an artist, you're just fortunate that you can make something that means something.
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