“You defend yourself by taking collective action,” explains Darcus Howe in the opening shots of the BBC documentary Black Power: A British Story of Resistance. The truth of those words shout back at us today in the continued killings of black people by the police, and the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Without the movement of the 1960s and 1970s involving “a new generation of young black people who had grown up with the Black Power message”, there would likely be none of the radical Bristol we see today. In recent weeks we have seen militant black and white protesters – as we did during the Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer – uniting against racism, sexism, police violence and attempts to increase the powers of the state.
A documentary on our TV screens that tells the truth about the enduring struggle for racial justice in Britain is a rare thing, which is why Black Power is a must see.
In laying out the scene and colouring in the parts, director George Amponsah and narrator Daniel Kaluuya weave a narrative that is full of analytical vigour.
Some of that analysis may have its weak spot. But it does not take away from the urgent sound it projects in a Britain where so much has changed at the bottom of society, and so much hasn’t at the top
The documentary is a timely reminder of a key milestone in the fight for racial equality in Britain. And it comes at a moment in history that hopefully will prove to be another milestone on the road to black liberation.
But if there is one word that connects today’s experiences to those in the film, it is “revolution”.
As Zainab Abbas, a member of the Black Liberation Front at the time, puts it, “We were all revolutionaries”. Those were the same words heard from leaders of the black youth group the 4Front Project speaking outside Tottenham police station, North London, against police murders last summer.
The Black Power movement that exploded in Britain in the 1960s was an outgrowth of the struggle on the other side of the Atlantic. Entrenched racism in the US faced its severest challenge since the Civil War era. But here too in the “Mother Country” official unapologetic racism was the norm, and its institutional character still presented itself as a stultifying and oppressive envelopment.
In the US, elements of the civil rights movement developed into the Black Power movement. And here in Britain, the Windrush Generation’s experience of all-pervasive racism was giving way to a collective assertiveness in public spaces. Previously confined to the private realm of more atomised struggles against discrimination at work, in housing, in the education system and elsewhere, these struggles were beginning to become more open.
Key Black Power figures Althea Jones-Lecointe – leader of the Black Panthers in Brixton – and author and activist Darcus Howe brought with them not just the best of a developed theoretical analysis of racism, but also a radical anti-communalist slant. This amplified the openness of Black Power as an anti-imperialist and anti-racist project. Farrukh Dhondy, another leading figure portrayed in the film, looks back at an Alexandra Palace gathering of “radical organisations of Asians and blacks”, Black Power in Britain appealed to and aspired to organise Asian and black people, albeit sometimes in separate organisations.
Such a stance was perhaps born out of necessity. But it underlines the fact that although heavily influenced by the US, this was a British movement led by black radicals of predominantly African-Caribbean descent, but also Asian too. That also reflected the politics of Caribbean countries such as Trinidad, where the British rulers had imported an Indian workforce and deliberately fostered communal divide and rule politics.
The strength of the film is its careful attention to the background of events and social realities of the time. It highlights the racism of Empire and the influence of the “Independence generation” in the Caribbean and beyond.
This method is put to powerful effect in describing how the visits of Malcolm X, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Martin Luther King helped crystallise a new confidence to join battle against British racism. The vanguard of racism at the time was the police – the same police force still at the cutting edge of state racism in this country.
The institution remains rotten to the core. They may not “beat you up in the station” as much as they did then, although even with cameras, they still do. In January this year this is exactly what relatives claim happened to Mohamud Hassan in Cardiff.
Black Power exposes the full extent of police brutality and state repression during the 1960s and 1970s. We even see an ex-policeman in tears recounting the beatings his colleagues meted out to black people held in their dungeons, and the shame he felt at not intervening to try and stop it.
Rightly the Mangrove Nine case of 1970 features prominently, when nine leading activists were acquitted by a jury after the police tried to charge them with inciting a riot. Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe were at the centre of turning the tables on the British justice system. Their case and campaign revealed deep, institutional racism, but it also showed the possibility of wining over a predominantly white working-class jury. This was part of a deliberate strategy by Howe to appeal to the overarching truth about the police – that they are at first iteration an anti-working class organisation.
We get a feel for the massive influence that the emergence in the US of the Marxist-influenced Black Panther Party for Self Defence had on black people in Britain. Leila Hassan, was an activist and author at the time. She summarises it best when she says, “It was a young movement of young men and women,” inspired to fight for lasting change.
Winston Trew, who also features in the film, recalled his first meeting and how the “the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I found something I could belong to, something I could believe in. Black Power, Black Power!”
“It was’t begging, it was not trying to show we were equal. We know we are equal and we’re not putting up with it… we were part of a movement of belief, a bigger black movement,” insists Hassan.
The assembled footage and accompanying soundtrack are delights as part of the whole, and recall the reggae sound systems that were the target of police raids.
Resistance and revolution
Resistance and revolution were the watch words of Black Power, which at its most radical located capitalism as the enemy.
The socialism of the US Black Panthers and the socialism of Fred Hampton didn’t find the same traction in Britain. But that’s not to discount the influence of the wider struggles for social justice and the combativity of the working class at the time. By the early 1970s a militant, striking working class existed in this country. And a radical New Left had established itself and included black workers in its ranks.
As the 1970s wore on, the radicalism of Black Power helped give energy to the urban insurrections of successive Notting Hill Carnival riots and the wave of revolts against racism and unemployment that hit the inner cities in 1981. The radicalism and confidence it inspired in black youth also found its way into the confidence of the anti-fascist struggle against the National Front led by the Anti Nazi League.
However the working class militancy and battles of the period didn’t break through. This helped give rise to identity politics as oppressed groups looked inwards and to the Labour Party to deliver reforms.
Black Power reminds us of the unfinished business of those times through the prism of the continuing struggles of today, witnessed most impressively in the birth of the mass Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was possible to take a stand and bring about change,” explains Daniel Kaluuya as the titles start to roll. Watch this documentary – it is a recognition and salute to those who fought back then and essential nourishment for the fight today. Let’s be educated and ready for the fire this time.
Can existential dread also be funny?
Real interviews with the first casualties
A new book by James Poskett