October 25, 2021


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Steve McQueen’s ‘Rebellion’, his Black British History Documentary

6 min read

Director Steve McQueen followed the descriptive anthology series of “Small X” series about West Indian immigrants in London last year, another series about Black British history: “Coup,” a three-part documentary series about three related events in 1981 – The Fire at New Cross House, Black Peoples. Day of Action and the Brixton Riot.

The series, co-directed by James Rogan, is now underway Amazon Prime, with two companion documentaries from McQueen Executive Produced: “Black Power: A British Story of Resistance” and “Submortal: A British Scandal,” followed by a series about the British education of black children.

The first episode of “Coup,” “Fire,” begins with interviews with people at the party where the New Cross house caught fire, a tragedy that killed 13 black teenagers. Although it seems to be related to the fictional house party of “Little Axis” movie “Lovers Rock”, McQueen says that they are completely unrelated, except that “Lovers Rock” probably presents an image if it could look like fire never happened.

“Small Axis” is the movie “Alex Whitel”, but sets the audience up for a better understanding of “Coup”. The biopic follows Whittle’s young adulthood in Brixton, where he wrote songs and sold marijuana until he was jailed for taking part in the Brixton riots against the Metropolitan Police. Whitel is now known for writing novels and talking openly about his experiences – which he did in front of the “coup” camera.

McQueen spoke with Diversity About his collaboration with Alex Whittle in real life and how music inspires his sense of hope.

I am curious about the development timeline of the project. Did you know you were going to “rebel” when you made the “tiny axis”?

Yes. We touched the New Crossfire on our episode Alex Whitley, but I wanted to be more inquisitive about my approach. A documentary was the only way I think it was possible to get into that particular story with James Rogan. So we started the process when I was in the development of the “tiny axis”.

Did you have “Lovers Rock” about what a New Cross House party could be like?

No. Because I wasn’t thinking about tragedy. I wanted to focus on happiness, because it was a happy time. It was losing itself in the youth – music, clothes, boys, girls. So there was no reaction at all, or no way to enter the New Cross Fire. But I know people made that connection. I imagine that unfortunately they created what could have happened rather than what happened.

“Rebellion” isn’t your first documentary, like you’ve made some short films, haven’t you?

I never made shorts – I made artwork. People talk about shorts, but there is no such thing as a fixed length that is short instead of full length. I don’t know what it is! I have never made a short film in my life. I made artwork. They are complete in themselves.

I like that definition. But have you wanted to do something for a while that “rebels”?

Not really – the subject tells me what it wants to be. Does the subject want to be a work of art? Does the subject want to be a feature film? Does the subject want to be a documentary? For me, the New Cross Fire should have been investigated. To illuminate, illustrate and educate.

A documentary can be fiction, and fiction can be a documentary. But this is 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 open the onion. Because, and all of “who,” “how” and “what”.

Alex Whittle worked as a consultant for the movie “Small X” named after you. What was it like meeting him for the first time?

He was in the house of the writers of “Little Axis”. I wanted her to write about her life, and she didn’t. It was very close. So me and another writer, Alastair Siddons, brought us up to work on Alex’s story when he talked to us about his life. He was just an amazing man, because he saw so much at this time. Things were getting really hot when I was a little younger. I remember a lot because I was 11 years old, but he was actually involved. He was good at information.

What was the process of finding and interviewing the other people present in the “coup”?

I hope we do a book about it, because we have so many things. Five years of research, so you can imagine. I think some people were desperate to tell their stories. And a lot of trauma happened to people, so sometimes people weren’t so imminent, but we were very lucky to get people’s trust.

It’s interesting how “coup” takes time to figure out their real character, to share colorful memories from their childhood and who they were before this difficult experience.

It was important, because it was in their condition. Interviews and how they answered questions and what they wanted to reveal were entirely up to them. It should have been highly respected. It wasn’t impressive, it wasn’t manipulative, it was to control their situation. Because they never got it before.

“Rebellion” manages to incorporate some unique cinematography with talking heads, such as when the human eye has extreme intimacy. My favorite was when Wayne Haynes talked about her “baby dreaming of flying in the sunrise” and we could see tears in her eyes. What was your visual outlook on the interview?

That was James, that shot. For me, it was all about the details. Police reorganization, photography, drawing. To make it more sensitive. You can get a lot from camera shots, or from someone’s eyes. But what you want is a physical condition. How many shots can you make in someone’s face? But all you can do is bring people closer together, with archival footage. So you can understand the environment. And one of the things I really admired was the poem at the end of the picture, all planted. Somehow out of that darkness into the light.

Tell me about your process of using archives. How do you choose what you want to use?

[I give] Many compliments for the editors [Brett Irwin and Esther Gimenez]. They were amazing, because obviously, they had to go through many hours of footage. I like archive footage. You see the battle of Lewisham. Oh, my God, it’s like a “light brigade charge.” I think many people will be shocked to see such footage. Half the horsemen were there in London. Riot ields were deployed. As well as tear gas. So it’s heavy. The footage is great, but it’s about what it means to us now and where we are now. And to be honest with you, we haven’t moved that far. Be quite open. In the UK, that’s for sure.

Music is a major element in telling these moments in Black British history. Can you talk a little bit about the role of music in your work?

“Tiny Ax” and “Rebellion”, music is a heartbeat, isn’t it? Especially in London at that time, and here and now, in the lives of blacks. It’s a heartbeat. A special kind of music and how it evolves and much more. Music is the reason people wake up in the morning. It is an audio corralling, uniformly. Hope for an audition. It’s hope, that’s what it is. I tell you, Bob Marley and Aretha Franklin saved lives. There is no “if”, but there is no “maybe”. People are still walking in this world because of them. And other musicians and artists. When there is no hope, you find hope in music.

The moment of “Alex Whittle” when Whitel tells his prison cellmate, “For me, it was always about music,” it almost felt like you were talking through it.

You said it out loud and clearly. It’s something to catch. I imagine, what would have happened without it?

“Rebellion” is now streaming on Amazon Prime video.

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