When Zainab Abbas, a renowned activist and former member of the Black Liberation Front, was asked if things had improved for black people in the UK over the past 50 years, she didn’t hesitate with her response.
“I don’t think it’s got better, I really don’t,” she said, pointing to rates of stop and search, black unemployment and rising hate crimes. “It’s important to remember that things haven’t changed because they were able to wipe out our history.”
An integral part of that history is finally centre stage in a new documentary by the BBC directed by George Amponsah and with executive producers including Steve McQueen. Narrated by actor Daniel Kaluuya, Black Power: A British Story of Resistance looks at the turbulent 60s and 70s through the eyes of the young black activists such as Abbas. Many are speaking for the first time about what it was really like to be involved in the British Black Power movement.
The film, which premieres on 25 March, features different groups in the movement – such as the Black Liberation Front, the British Black Panthers and the Fasimbas – that came together to resist the hostility and discrimination that immigrant communities and their children faced.
Amponsah said he jumped at the opportunity to put back in place a missing part of British history. “We can celebrate the fact that this film has been made now and before it’s too late. And I say that consciously because a lot of people are now in their 70s. If this film had been made five years ago, a lot of more significant contributors would have still been alive to tell the tale and hopefully contribute to the documentary.”
The documentary is unflinching in its representation of the brutal racism that people of colour faced in Britain, from police brutality to the rise of the far right. It was a conscious decision to do so, Amponsah said. “The N word is used several times in archives. We have to really think very hard and have a debate about whether we should have this or whether we should bleep it.
“But that was the climate that black and Asian people faced in this country and it was very important to document that accurately. As one of our contributors in the film said, they weren’t killing us, we weren’t being lynched, but they might as well have been, because they were killing our lives. We had no future,” he said.
Other key parts of the film explore the Mangrove Nine trial, controversial figures such as Michael X, and events such as the Spaghetti House siege.
Abbas has not spoken to the press before about that time of her life. “It took a lot of persuading to get me to participate in the documentary,” she said, but by doing so she hopes to re-emphasise the role of black women in the movement. “The idea that women would take a back seat or were being silenced is ridiculous. They were very much in the forefront of the movement.”
Winston Trew, a former member of the Fasimbas, a radical black organisation that operated in London and supported young people, said groups like his fought on multiple fronts. As well as holding demonstrations, the Fasimbas opened a Saturday school for children being failed by mainstream education to help them with history, English and maths.
Groups like the Fasimbas were slowly crushed by the state, Trew added. “Part of the strategy of the state against black groups was to arrest members and exhaust them.”
The documentary looks at Trew’s wrongful conviction for attempted theft and assaulting police in 1972, the case now known as the Oval Four. “When we were arrested, shockwaves went through the organisation. People were shocked that we could be picked off like that and thrown in person,” he said. His conviction was finally overturned last year.
The British Black Power movement was then led by a powerful coalition of black and Asian activists, including Farrukh Dhondy. “We defined black as a political colour, not a skin colour. We were asserting the rights of social, economic political equality of people of different races who had come here as immigrants,” he said.
He believes that is one of the key lessons to be learned for today’s generation of anti-racists. “What they should do is see how they can mobilise masses of people who suffered the same things or sympathise with the suffering to do something about it.
“We have of course some parliamentary recourse, but parliamentary recourse has never been the key to reform. It’s always been, from the Peterloo massacre onwards, the actions of people outside,” he said.
The film ends with clips of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. This is fitting, Trew said. “They’re dealing with a lot of issues we were dealing with.”
When asked what advice he would give to the latest generation, he said: “You are a revolutionary and the future belongs to young people.”