Uprising review: A powerful portrait of tragedy and legacy
James R | On 20, Jul 2021
“People on the outside, maybe they can just imagine…” That’s one of the survivors of the New Cross Fire in January 1981, speaking at the start of Uprising. Directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, the three-part series for BBC One charts a string of events from that, beginning with the fire, before going on to the first organised mass protest by black British people and, that April, the Brixton riots. The latter is familiar territory for McQueen, having told the story of novelist Alex Wheatle – who was sentenced to a term of imprisonment after the Brixton uprising – in his seminal drama anthology Small Axe. Uprising marks a first step into feature documentary direction for McQueen, but it carries every bit the same emotional heft.
The fire itself occurred at a house party in the South London district, ultimately killing 13 Black teenagers. The cause of the fire was returned with an open verdict by an investigation at the time, but survivors and family members of those who were in the building talk of the possibility of an intentional petrol bomb starting the blaze. What gives this first film such powerful weight is that we hear all this directly from people connected to the tragedy – there are no historians introducing the event through third-party hindsight or even a presenter providing voiceover commentary. The first thing we hear is a woman’s wail of horror, and that decision to simply listen to local residents is a striking one.
Rogan, who recently helmed Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation, is a seasoned expert in the format, and he and McQueen assemble footage, photos and newspaper clippings at a pace that’s absorbing and compelling but never rushes from hearing the moving testimonies of survivors. The outreach to find these people – during the coronavirus pandemic no less – is impressive in itself, and that pays off with visceral interviews, recounting how smoke filled the building and plunged the rooms into darkness. Wayne Haynes harrowing description of sweat running down his face will stay with you for days.
40 years after the tragic fire, Uprising’s first chapter is a vivid and thoughtful account of an event that today would otherwise be forgotten or unknown. The documentary focuses on the fire’s human resonance and impact – and, by doing so, naturally explores the wider importance of the incident, putting it in political, social and racial context (as well as investigators and activists, the interviewees also include police officers). The result turns a personal tragedy into a moment of national significance, drawing a line from traumatic aftermath to profound legacy.
Uprising is available on BBC iPlayer until July 2022.
This review was originally published during Sheffield DocFest 2021.