Director Steve McQueen has followed up on “Small Axe,” last year’s narrative anthology series about West Indian immigrants in London, with another series about Black British history: “Uprising,” a three-part documentary series about three related events in 1981 — the New Cross house fire, Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton riots.
The series, which he co-directed with James Rogan, is now streaming on Amazon Prime, along with two companion documentaries that McQueen executive produced: “Black Power: A British Story of Resistance” and “Subnormal: A British Scandal,” the latter about British education of Black children.
The first episode of “Uprising,” “Fire,” begins with interviews of people present at the party where the New Cross house fire broke out, a tragedy that killed 13 Black teenagers. While it almost feels related to the fictional house party in the “Small Axe” film “Lovers Rock,” McQueen says that they’re completely unrelated, besides that “Lovers Rock” perhaps presents a picture of what it might have looked like if the fire had never happened.
The “Small Axe” film “Alex Wheatle,” however, sets up the audience to better understand “Uprising.” The biopic followed Wheatle’s young adulthood in Brixton, where he wrote music and sold marijuana until he was incarcerated for participating in the Brixton riots against the Metropolitan Police. Wheatle is now known for writing novels and speaking publicly about his experiences — which he did in front of a camera in “Uprising.”
McQueen spoke with Variety about his collaboration with the real-life Alex Wheatle and how music is what inspires his sense of hope.
I’m curious about the development timeline of the project. Did you know while making “Small Axe” that you were going to be making “Uprising”?
Yes. We touched on the New Cross Fire in our episode Alex Wheatle, but I wanted to be much more investigative in my approach. A documentary was the only way I thought possible to infiltrate that particular story, along with James Rogan. So we started the process when I was within the development of “Small Axe.”
Was “Lovers Rock” your take on what the New Cross house party might have looked like?
No. Because I wasn’t thinking of tragedy. I wanted to focus on joy, because it was a joyful time. It was all about losing yourself as young people — the music, the clothes, the guys, the girls. So it wasn’t a reaction at all, or a way into the New Cross Fire. But I know people have made that connection. I imagine that they’ve made it of what could have happened, rather than what unfortunately did happen.
“Uprising” isn’t your first documentary work, as you’ve made some short films, correct?
I have never made shorts — I’ve made artworks. People talk about shorts, but there’s no such thing as a certain length which is a short rather than a full-length. I don’t know what the hell that is! I’ve never made a short film in my life. I’ve made artworks. They are complete in themselves.
I like that definition. But had you wanted for a while to make something in the form that “Uprising” takes?
Not really — the subject tells me what it wants to be. Does the subject want to be an artwork? Does the subject want to be a feature film? Does the subject want to be a documentary? For me, the New Cross Fire was to be investigated. To illuminate, illustrate, and educate.
A documentary can be fiction, and fiction can be a documentary. But it’s about how you want to capture an audience. Both can be deeply emotional. But with the New Cross Fire, I wanted to be much more investigative. I wanted to unpeel the onion. The causes, and the “who,” “how” and “what” of it all.
Alex Wheatle served as a consultant on the “Small Axe” film you named after him. What was it like meeting him for the first time?
He was in the writers room for “Small Axe.” I wanted him to write about his life, and he didn’t want to. It was too close. So myself and another writer, Alastair Siddons, took it upon ourselves to work on Alex’s story as he spoke to us about his life. He was just an amazing guy, because he had witnessed a lot of these things during that time. I was a bit younger when things were really heating up. I remember a lot because I was 11 years old, but he actually was involved. He was a well of information.
What was the process of finding and interviewing all of the other people who appear in “Uprising”?
I’m hoping we do a book about it, because we have a wealth of things. Over five years of research, so you can imagine. I think some people were desperate to tell their stories. And there was a lot of trauma that happened to people, so sometimes people weren’t so forthcoming, but we were very fortunate to get people’s trust.
It’s interesting how “Uprising” takes the time to flesh them out as real characters, to share the joyful memories from their childhoods and who they were before these difficult experiences.
That was important, because it was on their terms. The interviews and how they answered the questions and what they wanted to divulge was totally on their terms. That had to be hugely respected. It wasn’t wasn’t prying, it wasn’t manipulative, it was all about them taking control of that situation. Because they’ve never had that before.
“Uprising” manages to incorporate some unique cinematography along with the talking heads, like when there are extreme close-ups of people’s eyes. My favorite was when Wayne Haynes talks about his “kiddie dreams of flying off into the sunset” and we see a tear in his eye. What was your visual approach to the interviews?
That was James, that shot. For me, it was all about the details. The police reconstruction, the photographs, the drawing. To make it more tactile. There’s so much you can get from a camera shot, or someone’s eye. But what you want is the physicality of what’s going on. How many shots can you do of someone’s face? But what you can do is bring people, also with the archive footage, closer to a moment in time. So you understand the environment. And something which I was very much appreciative of was the poem at the end of the picture, with all the trees that were planted. Coming out of that darkness into some kind of light.
Tell me about your process of utilizing the archives. How did you select what you wanted to use?
[I give] a lot of praise to the editors [Brett Irwin and Esther Gimenez]. They were amazing, because obviously, they had to go through a lot of hours of footage. I love archive footage. You see the Battle of Lewisham. Oh, my God, it’s like “Charge of the Light Brigade.” I think a lot of people will be shocked to see that kind of footage. Half of the cavalry on horseback in London was there.The riot shields were deployed. Tear gas as well. So it’s heavy. The footage is fantastic, but it’s all about what it means to us now, and where we are now. And to be honest with you, we haven’t moved on that much. To be quite frank. In the U.K., that’s for sure.
Music is a major element of your telling of these moments in Black British history. Can you talk a bit about the role of music in your work?
In “Small Axe” and “Uprising,” music is a heartbeat, isn’t it? Particularly in London at that time, and here and now, in Black people’s lives. It’s the heartbeat. A particular kind of music and how it evolves and so forth. Music is the reason why people get up in the morning. It’s an audial corralling, in a way. An audial hope. It’s hope, that’s what it is. Let me tell you, Bob Marley and Aretha Franklin have saved lives. There’s no “if,” there’s no “but,” there’s no “maybe.” People are still walking this earth because of them. And other musicians and artists. When there’s no hope, you find hope in music.
The moment in “Alex Wheatle” when Wheatle tells his prison cellmate, “For me, it was always about the music,” it almost felt like you were speaking through him.
You’ve said it loud and clear. It’s something to grab onto. I imagine, if it wasn’t there, what would have happened?
“Uprising” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.