Image Credit: BBC Three
Made during the height of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, the BBC Three documentary Fighting the Power: Britain after George Floyd assesses the UK movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd, and serves as a lived-history record of the time. Examining the few weeks “when Britain erupted once again in protest for racial equality”, journalist Daniel Henry captures the zeitgeist of the early summer when Floyd’s death ignited a resurgence of protests and discussions across the western world.
In an age where the diverse and voluminous range of material online can occasionally feel overwhelming, Henry’s documentary zooms in on those at the heart of the movement – spatially, temporally and socially. Yet the focus is far from narrow. Henry interviews a range of groups and individuals with different stakes to claim in the Black Lives Matter movement. The documentary begins by centring on the all-female group Justice for Black Lives, the organisers of the 3rd June London protest, whilst further in the programme, Henry talks to police officers about the issues of police brutality and systemic racism.
Fighting the Power, most importantly, sees Henry become a participant himself; he attends the large-scale protests of early June, talking to protestors in real-time about their motivations and opinions. Henry doesn’t shy away from his own opinions, but they are presented as though he is an interviewee; he is careful to occupy a space as a participant, rather than a narrator, of the documentary. His incredulity at the persistence of systemic racism is encapsulated when he compares it to the COVID-19 pandemic: “Why don’t we social distance from racism?”
As with those he interviews, the documentary records his thoughts in real-time, offering alternative perspectives at crucial points of the three-week period following Floyd’s death. Henry was surprised by the defacing of the Winston Churchill statue in London, saying he “never thought he would see this”, demonstrating the new urgency of the movement this time round.
Using Henry as a witness, we are put at less of a distance from events. We see a man pull off the placards placed on Churchill’s statue with Henry and his crew. One of the few direct conclusions Henry offers is an analysis of the media’s handling of events; viewers watch him describe a TV report as “limiting” due to its focus on the outcome of violence from a protest, rather than the reasons leading to it.
Fighting the Power, then, is not only a documentary, but also an exercise in truth-seeking, and a
commentary on the way media can shape how a movement is perceived. The lack of authoritative voiceover, and the usage of contemporary footage, result in a lack of judgement or retrospective summarising of the events and their individuals. The emphasis is very much on viewers having the tools to draw their own conclusions, with the “evidence” conveyed through a variety of mediums. In-person interviews, radio clips, CCTV footage, TV bulletins, and Instagram posts all feature during
the programme; but, crucially, each media clip is secondary to footage of the protests and incidents where the heart of this story lies.
Regarding said “incidents”, any signposting that does occur in the documentary is orientated towards facts, with several presented in block text interspersed with CCTV footage. These relate to the issue of police brutality in the UK, a controversy that tends to be side-lined by the mainstream press due to a vague belief that “what happens in America doesn’t happen here”. However, Fighting the Power notes the obvious disparity between this view and the lived experiences of black individuals and communities. As one interviewee puts it to Henry: “Black people don’t experience a police service. They experience a police force."
The statistics alert any unaware viewers to the reality of the situation. Henry reports that police are five times more likely to use force against a black person than a white person, whilst in March of this year the government granted police forces in England and Wales £7 million extra funding for the purchase of tasers. As police chiefs are interviewed about the prevalence of racism in their forces, our attention is drawn to the fallacy of prioritising corrective action over preventative action by the discussions of social justice group 4 Point, who argue for diverting police funds to black communities to prevent crimes happening in the first place.
Continuing from this, Henry’s documentary consistently focuses on the goals of Black Lives Matter activists – the changes they want to see in the future, not just from the wider community but also from non-black family and friends. Interviewees emphasise their conflicting emotions surrounding the protests; they experience jubilation and excitement as the momentum builds, but also anxiety and fatigue. We are reminded that each protestor is ultimately an individual, and that the act of protesting must be accompanied by long-term, systemic change. Ultimately, the viewers must also play their part.
Fighting the Power: Britain after George Floyd is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.