Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation: a painfully intimate portrait of grief and injustice

Tuesday, 17th April 2018, 5:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 17th April 2018, 5:14 pm

"I find it weird, really. I don't enjoy it at all. But I think it's important because of the way Stephen was killed, and the way we were treated as a family."

James Rogan's searing three-part BBC documentary, which dives deep into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and its fallout, opens with Stephen's mother Doreen (now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon) expressing her conflicted feelings on taking part in films about the case.

Executive produced by Asif Kapadia, the Oscar-winner behind acclaimed profile features Amy and Senna, 'Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation' unfolds across three consecutive nights this week, and takes a similarly intimate approach to its subject matter.

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Here, the camera unwaveringly captures the nuances of heartbreak, grief and anger, of emotions still raw and palpable a quarter of a century on.

It is far from easy viewing. But just as the lens itself rarely cuts away, empathy and outrage compels us to keep watching.

Powerful, profound humanity

Twenty-five years ago this week, 18-year-old student Stephen Lawrence was waiting for a bus in Eltham, South East London, when a group of white youths murdered him in an unprovoked racist attack.

Appropriately titled 'The Loss Of Joy', Rogan's first episode focuses on the circumstances surrounding Stephen’s murder and the deeply flawed police investigation that followed.

Duwayne Brooks' account of the attack is agonising (Photo: BBC)

Framing its subjects completely centre, close-up, and refusing to look away (even when it's painful not to do so), the film musters powerful, profound humanity among a tale of senseless brutality and injustice.

There's the heartbreaking moment we focus on Neville Lawrence's face - capturing flinches of sorrow - as he recalls the last time he saw his son alive.

There's the moment the voice of Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks trembles and cracks and he covers his eyes, then closes them, while he describes the attack.

And then there's the brief zoom on Doreen's eyes when she remembers learning that Stephen had died. "You think you're watching a play or a drama," she notes. "It's not real."

A rising tide of tensions

In its opening minutes, the episode employs interviewees' recorded voices over unrelated shots of the crew setting up and directing the interviewees.

There's almost a sense that it's deconstructing the documentary format. Cutting through the contrived artifice so many films create and suggesting it will get to the 'real' truth, perhaps.

Indeed, before we get to the terrible incident at its centre, 'Stephen' covers Doreen's emigration from the Caribbean to the UK as a child, her adjusting to life here, her meeting and falling in love with Neville, and their son's early years ("he was one of these kids who would thrive at everything").

Testimony from friends, family and neighbours paints a picture of a happy, socially integrated family, and of Stephen as someone who didn't have the same sense of "difference", according to his mixed-race cousin Mat.

Stephen's family and friends recall an enthusiastic, optimistic boy - but he was growing up close to resentful and violent racist gangs (Photo: BBC)

But Stephen was growing up amid a rising tide of resentment and tensions, not far from where the Lawrences lived.

Mat likens it to the modern climate of Brexit. Of not being welcome. Of being "other".

The area where Stephen lived bordered places where support for the British National Party was on the rise. Eltham, where Stephen would be killed, had seen a spike in racially-motivated attacks.

In 1991, two years before Stephen's murder, 15-year-old Rolan Adams was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths there.

Speaking in the documentary, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon refers to a "simmering cauldron of unrest around race issues".

Police under the spotlight

The events of the attack on Stephen - illustrated with footage from Paul Greengrass's dramatisation - are rendered all the more sorrowful by the little details.

The fact that Stephen and Duwayne's bus was delayed, and they might have already decided to jog home if they knew how late it would be.

The fact that Duwayne begged passers-by for help when Stephen collapsed, but they just carried on walking.

But if the murder itself ripped a hole through the lives of the talented aspiring athlete and those who loved him, what came next seemed unthinkable.

The Metropolitan Police's investigation into Stephen's killing is placed under a spotlight here. And there's an awful lot to digest.

Neville was shocked at the way they were treated by officers (Photo: BBC)

Duwayne was questioned by police through the night, as though he were himself a criminal. The officers Neville thought were there to support them began taking names of everyone at the house. The senior investigating officer was changed two days into the investigation.

Detectives involved in the case give their side of the story. A lot of anonymous tip-offs named the same men as Stephen's attackers - but the officers felt this was a case of a "rumour" going around, and people repeating what they'd heard. That there was no actual evidence.

Because these suspects were juveniles, and arresting them could be problematic, they decided not to.

In a particularly damning turn of events, a surveillance team failed to spot suspects leaving a house carrying black bin-liners.

Grief and outrage

The documentary covers the protests that followed, such as Nelson Mandela meeting Stephen's parents while on a visit to Britain, and the differing responses to the situation.

"Various factions were trying to co-opt what happened," says Mat. "It felt like jackals circling a carcass."

It also explores the bizarre revelation that Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and Neville knew each other, as Neville had done plastering work at his house.

Doreen Lawrence has, understandably, never "got over" the loss of her son (Photo: BBC)

"I didn't realise it was your son," Dacre reportedly told him. An exclusive interview with the paper was arranged.

It is as a portrait of the devastation visited on Stephen's loved ones that this first episode really hits home. Whether it's Neville, casting his mind to people losing their first-born in the Bible as punishment, and saying he began to wonder if he had done something to deserve this; or when Mat talks about the difficulty he faced being around Neville and Doreen's grief, and outrage.

The viewer may find it similarly challenging to witness, even on film. But as Doreen points out, it's a story that needs to be told.

Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation is on BBC One at 9pm until Thursday. It will also be available on iPlayer.

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