The story of the New Cross fire should feature as part of the national curriculum, according to Steve McQueen and the makers of a documentary about the tragedy that happened 40 years ago and changed race relations in the UK for ever.
McQueen’s three-part documentary, Uprising, tells the story of the fire, and the Black People’s Day of Action and the Brixton riots that followed it in 1981, with the Oscar-winning director believing the restive period should be taught in schools.
“These are historical moments, not just for black British people, but for British people in general, because these events have been reverberating throughout the nation,” McQueen said.
Thirteen young black people were killed on 18 January 1981, when a fire engulfed 439 New Cross Road in south-east London as a joint birthday party began to wind down in the early hours. Witnesses said they saw a man make a throwing action near the house before the blaze tore through the property.
The police response to the tragedy, which discounted racism as a motive almost immediately despite several firebomb attacks on black clubs and homes in the area, is investigated in Uprising with former officers offering their accounts.
The films are the most in-depth look at the events of 1981, as black families and activists pushed back against the police narrative that the fire was not started deliberately.
“I really hope when people watch they will realise what was done to us as a community and then it will never happen again,” said the series producer, Helen Bart, who ensured activists such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Leila Hassan Howe were included.
The fire and its aftermath triggered the Black People’s Day of Action, a large-scale protest that drew participants from across the country who marched through central London, while later in the year there was widespread racial unrest in the capital and in cities such as Liverpool.
Wayne Haynes and Denise Gooding, who both survived the fire that killed Gooding’s brother Andrew, said the project gave them a feeling of freedom. “It seemed like people didn’t really understand. It was like, here we are, we’re suffering and nobody’s hearing us. It’s hard,” said Gooding.
“It’s almost like a freedom,” said Haynes, who was DJing at the party and barely survived after climbing out of a window and falling into an outhouse. “We’re allowed to tell our story for what it is, and how it was – it’s a release, it really is.”
McQueen, who last year released the five-film anthology Small Axe about the black British experience in London over three decades, said the issues Uprising tackles, such as policing and racism, are pertinent today.
“There’s no point if this is just about us blowing off the dust from the past like it’s some relic,” he said. “These things are alive and present, as we have seen, unfortunately, with the events of George Floyd recently, and Mark Duggan.”
The director added the documentary was a “rallying call” for those facing oppression. “It’s about making people think, ‘Hey, we could possibly do something. We’re not just sitting on our couches and taking what is happening to us.’ So in fact, this is a rallying call.”