Steve McQueen to produce BBC films on black power and UK schools scandal

Arts and culture correspondent Lanre Bakare (The Guardian) reports on Steve McQueen’s latest project: two documentaries for the BBC to examine “the UK black power movement and ESN schools that became ‘dumping ground’ for black children.”

Steve McQueen is to work on two documentaries for the BBC about the black power movement and the educationally subnormal schools of the 60s and 70s, which have been described as “one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education”.

McQueen, who will be executive producer of the films, said many of those who appear in the documentaries will be “telling their stories for the first time”.

Inspired by his recent Small Axe series, the documentaries focus on the black power movement in Britain, which was touched on in Mangrove, and the ESN schools that were explored in the last film in the anthology, Education. “Looking at the past is an indication of what we have achieved today,” McQueen said. “These two documentaries show us how far we still have to travel for liberty and justice.”

Black Power will chart the rise of the movement that grew out of the civil rights struggle, producing leaders and intellectuals such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who both visited the UK.

The documentary, which will be helmed by Hard Stop director George Amponsah, will feature footage of African American figures in the UK but also black British leaders, including Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe and Roy Sawh.

Jones-LeCointe and Howe were key figures in the British black power movement and were part of the seminal Mangrove Nine case, where – for the first time – a British judge said the police had been guilty of racist attitudes. The black power movement in the UK has been revisited in recent years by McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave collaborator, John Ridley, in a fictionalised Sky series called Guerilla. That show was criticised for not including the contribution by black British women, after Freida Pinto was cast in a leading role.

Subnormal will be directed by Lyttanya Shannon and will examine “one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education”, according to the BBC. Black children were four times as likely to be sent to ESNs, which had a “profound effect and prevented many from achieving their full potential”, said Shannon.

The Grenadian writer Bernard Coard wrote a seminal book about ESNs, which helped shift opinions among parents of children in the institutions that he called “a dumping ground for black children”, particularly those from the Caribbean. Coard warned about the destructive force of low teacher expectations on black children, racism within the curriculum itself and the need for more black teachers in the schools, and called for community-led Saturday schools.

The documentary will examine the debates about race and intelligence that led to the disproportionate number of black children being sent to the school, and the impact that being in that environment had on the pupils once they left.

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s chief content officer, said: “These are important stories from our recent history that still resonate today. Steve McQueen has assembled a talented team of creatives to make these two documentaries that shine a light on the experiences of young black people from the 1960s and 1970s.”

[Steve McQueen speaking about his Small Axe series at the Rome Film Festival in October. Photograph: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images for RFF.]

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