Almost a year on from Black Lives Matter protests in the UK following George Floyd’s death in the USA, Steve McQueen’s new documentary, Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, is timely, and makes for essential viewing.
Narrated by actor Daniel Kaluuya, the one-off film looks back at the 1960s and ’70s through the eyes of young Black people who refused to accept racism as a natural order in the UK, and fought against it by any means necessary.
Featuring interviews and archival footage from key figures in the movement in the UK, including Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe, Roy Sawh, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Winston Trew and many more, Black Power reveals an extremely important history of Black British people that is often overlooked.
Up until recently when protests took centre stage in the UK, most of the talk surrounding racism pointed towards the USA, something Zainab Abbas points out in the documentary.
However, in reality there was significant racial tension in the UK, which materialised after the Empire Windrush carried Black, West Indian people over to help rebuild Britain following the Second World War. Cue archive footage of racist hatred, complaints about people of colour stealing jobs, or using up resources – a statement we’re all too familiar with, unfortunately.
In Black Power, Steve McQueen continues to explore themes portrayed in his BBC series Small Axe, particularly the Education episode, which saw Black people marginalised and pushed out into special schools. Here, McQueen develops the topic further by revealing other areas where Black people were disregarded in society, such as with poor housing and poor policing.
This led to the formation of numerous Black Power groups, such as R.A.A.S., the British Black Panthers and The Fasimbas, who decided they would take no more of it, and stand up for their rights. In the documentary, McQueen shows how these groups peacefully protested, and demanded respect from the police, with key figures like Darcus Howe using his background in law to speak eloquently on behalf of Black people.
Despite efforts to keep protests peaceful, the documentary shows how the tension between the police and Black people led to violence as protests quickly turned nasty. “The outcome was tragic but it was for political purposes,” says one contributor.
Giving viewers a full picture of the Black Power movement, we’re introduced to different types of freedom fighters throughout the documentary. While on one hand, you had leaders like Martin Luther King who led peaceful protests, you also had Malcom X who believed people had to fight back even if that involved violence – a message R.A.A.S. leader “Michael X” decided to run with.
Mentioned regularly throughout the documentary, Michael X – real name Michael de Freitas – was the face of the Black Power movement when it came to the press – even if, according to the contributors in the documentary, he didn’t actually do very much for the Black community. There are many similar stories within the Black Power documentary, which show how a few group of people tarnished the reputation of the movement.
One of the things I have to applaud Steve McQueen for when it comes to Black Power is his vivid storytelling, with no details spared. In one scene, former police officer Alan Moss talks of “boisterous hostility” towards the police while working in London’s Brixton area. Taking an objective approach, McQueen provides both sides of the story, as one Black contributor admits: “There was a tradition of defiance due to racial profiling and harassment.”
McQueen then goes on to detail said “harassment”, from the police breaking up the parties of Black people, to the notorious case of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, which the police raided on a regular basis in search of criminal activity, despite never finding any.
It’s incidents like this – which led to the Mangrove Nine Trial and saw two women and seven men wrongfully accused of rioting and police battery – that highlight the great work of the Black Power movement. Through solidarity, the documentary shows how members of the Black Power groups fought for their rights, leading to the Mangrove Nine being acquitted of the main charges of incitement to riot, with five being acquitted of all charges. The same can be seen with Winston Trew, who was arrested and imprisoned as part of the Oval Four, only to have all his crimes overturned 47 years later.
For me, this epitomised the true power of Black activism. Despite the downfalls, the documentary shows how with unity and self empowerment, Black Power groups successfully fought for change and achieved historic victories. With many parallels to the present day, it shares an important message for us to educate ourselves, because – as Kaluuya puts it in the film – “to ignore this history is to risk not learning key lessons from the past.”