Uprising Review: Steve McQueen’s Emotional Documentary is Masterful

It seems crazy that only a few months ago all of the talk surrounding Steve McQueen was, of course, regarding his miniseries Small Axe – a collection of five feature length films focused on racial politics in Britain from the 1960s to the 1980s (and, by design, also touching heavily on how the same issues are still relevant now). Uprising appeared to emerge almost from nowhere, with little build-up in advertising and little press coverage, which could easily suggest that maybe this project was of less importance – but anything to the contrary would be more true.

Uprising is a three hour documentary, split into three one-hour parts by the BBC, telling the story – maybe stories is more apt – of the New Cross Fire, which tragically led to the death of 13 young black British teenagers (not counting Anthony Berbeck who experienced the fire and did survive, but committed suicide two years later) and the aftermath of that event. McQueen makes use of an insane amount of archival footage to tell this story, along with interviews with a group of people who experienced the fire and its aftermath first hand, from victims to police officers to politicians who involved themselves later on. The incredible editing of this massively scaled documentary is already impressive enough, but McQueen ensures that he carefully allows the stories to play out and gives them all enough time to breathe, even if in parts of the first episode the editing does feel a little hasty.

It’s an intense, frightening documentary that touches on so many topics that link to Small Axe, topics that still trouble the UK and the rest of the world today: racism, police brutality and the ignorance of politicians, just to name a few. McQueen’s typical didacticism is on full show here, and it enhances the documentary a great deal as he manages to weave together so many complex issues into an easy to follow timeline – the film deals with so much: music, politics, racism, policing, poetry, art, history, etc. and yet it never feels as if it leads off on any tangent. This huge scale is so delicately handled, taking what could easily have been an out of control story and allowing it to play out carefully enough that it works excellently.

Of course, the aforementioned links to today’s same problems is crucial to Uprising too. The connections between the New Cross tragedy and Grenfell are almost blinding – young black people killed and the fight for justice seeming to last forever in a case that seems as clear as day. Spike Lee‘s somewhat similar film (in approach and topic) When The Levees Broke (2006) has a similar kick to it, that infuriation and frustration that these seemingly cut and dry cases are being so drawn out, that justice is never being given and, even worse, that the police and the government don’t even seem to care enough to investigate further. Thankfully, as McQueen’s stunningly beautiful final few minutes of Uprising suggest, the memory of those lost in the New Cross fire live on, and the event led to a genuine shift in racial politics in England due to the Brixton riots and the other politics events that surrounded it. Things are still terrible, but slowly, they get better.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Uprising is now streaming on BBC iPlayer. Watch the trailer below:

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