There was palpable anger in the room at the Sunday-afternoon preview of Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation. Hopeless, gut-wrenching anger – the kind that forces teeth into a grind and sends tears streaming down cheeks. In the almost 25 years since the tragic murder of 18-year-old college student Stephen Lawrence, at the hands of five white, racist men, one thing is glaringly clear: the battle for justice is far from over.
This Sunday will mark 25 years since Stephen Lawrence was targeted by a gang of white supremacists and stabbed to death in Eltham, south London, while waiting for a bus with his friend, Duwayne Brooks.
I had the privilege of watching the three-part documentary this weekend. The programme covers three distinct themes: The Loss Of Joy, The System and Corruption & Conviction. Episode one kicks off with the heartbreakingly carefree-seeming heydey of the Lawrences in 1960s/70s Britain. Starting with the arrival of Doreen Lawrence – nicknamed Joy by her family – to the UK from Jamaica, her subsequent marriage to Neville and the birth of their firstborn son, Stephen, the documentary – from the team behind Amy and Senna – begins by demonstrating just how wedded white Britain was to keeping up the general charade of racial and cultural unity, without ever looking inwards.
Speaking in a Q&A session, hosted by producer Asif Kapadia with Imran Khan, James Rogan (the director of the documentary) and producer James Gay-Rees, after the preview at the Curzon cinema in Soho, Doreen Lawrence said that Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation would be the last effort to tell her son’s story that she would contribute to.
“I decided last year, or a bit earlier, that I wanted to do something to mark the 25th anniversary. And my thing is drawing a line, because I think after [the documentary is released] – please don’t call me.
“It was never about me. It’s about what’s happened over the last 25 years, the changes that have happened in Stephen’s name and just to make sure that there is a lasting legacy for him. That has always been my starting point.”
Did the documentary film live up to her expectations, she is asked. “I always say that I’m the wrong person to ask that question. I saw the first cut some weeks ago and I can tell you: I won’t be watching it again. Because it’s my life. And it’s very emotional. I like to be in the background all the time, to do whatever it is I need to do to support wherever I can support. I never want to be in front of the camera, but here I am.”
From the failure of the first investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder to the Sir William Macpherson-led inquiry – which, in 1999, branded the Metropolitan Police “institutionally racist” – the 2012 convictions of two of the five suspects accused of murdering Stephen almost 20 years prior and, later, an inquiry into claims that undercover police had spied on the Lawrence family, the events following Stephen Lawrence’s death have uncovered some of the more sinister aspects of the criminal-justice system when it comes to the persecution of black and Asian people.
“When we had the conviction, it was a completely different time and a completely different relationship with the police,” Lawrence said. “I think we were able to shine a light on them, to show how racist they had been and how they mishandled Stephen’s case and the fact that they allowed these individuals to walk all these years – and it was all down to them. For me, it’s always been that I’m focused more on what I can do, more than looking back. Yes, I do blame the police, but at the same time my thing is always that I have two other children – their lives I want to be involved in. The Stephen Lawrence trust, the young people that we’re helping – those are the things that are important to me.
“Even though Stephen is always at the forefront, my work has always been about his legacy. But there are times when things would come up. If you look back from 1993 up until the inquest in 1997, there isn't a year [that goes] by without something happening. When [new] things come up, I get really angry.”
It’s a story that has been in the public consciousness for decades and not because it was the first known incident of a racist murder in Britain, but because of the lasting impact unrelenting campaigning has had on the law and Britain’s unwillingness to reckon with the racism that runs through its DNA. Next year, for example, will be the 60th anniversary of the murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane, whose killers were never charged for their crimes in a chillingly similar set of circumstances to Lawrence’s.
I’m furious and angry all over again, just standing back and seeing what the family went through and how the police behaved back in 93 and continue to behave over 25 years
With the burden of Brexit looming over the heads of people living in Britain, we’re in a worryingly similar climate to that of early 90s London – still reeling from the 1981 Brixton riots and the 1981 New Cross fire, which police were also accused of failing to investigate after 13 young black people perished in the blaze. Last year, for example, hate crimes soared by an alarming 23 per cent (from 40,741 to 49,921) in the 11 months following the EU referendum, a report from The Independent showed.
And, once again, the deaths of black people in police custody has emerged as an issue that doesn’t seem to have reached any level of resolve for the black community in all the years that it has been occuring. It has been almost 10 years since the death of Sean Rigg, whose family accused the Crown Prosecution Service of setting an “impossibly high evidential test when deciding whether to prosecute police officers”. Meanwhile, the names of Rashan Charles, Kevin Clarke, Edson da Costa, Darren Cumberbatch and other black people who have died following police contact have resurfaced conversations about institutional racism in a number of police forces – an aspect of discrimination that still feels frustratingly rife.
It’s this – the fact that racism has not dissipated, but has become harder to detect – that makes Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation so powerful. Through interviews with those whose lives were irrevocably torn apart by Stephen’s murder – his mother and father, Baroness Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Brooks, close family members, Imran Khan (the Lawrence family’s lawyer for the past 25 years) – as well as the police and politicians who had a hand in either stifling the case or moving it forwards, we see the facts of Lawrence’s death in the clearest light we have for years.
Race relations feel eerily similar, all these years later. And the film demonstrates that excellently.
Sharing his impression of the film during the Q&A, Khan said, “We thought it was just going to be a historical document of film, but actually it has become so much more than that. I don’t know what sort of emotions have been engendered in the audience, but I’m furious and angry all over again, just standing back and seeing what the family went through and how the police behaved back in 93 and continue to behave over 25 years, it really does make you angry. So it’s reignited the anger, certainly in me, 25 years later.
“I hope it’s ignited it in other people here who [watch] it.”
Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation will be on BBC One at 9pm 17-19 April