Black Lives Matter activist. Courtesy of Generation Revolution.If you haven’t yet heard of the London Black Revolutionaries, you will almost certainly have heard of their activism. Remember in 2014, when thousands marched on the US embassy after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri? Or the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ die-in protest in Westfield shopping centre, which was staged in response to the unjust death of another black man, Eric Garner, at police hands? The Black Revs were key organisers of both.
What about when Tesco erected anti-homeless spikes outside their Regent Street store? Under the cover of darkness, Black Revs operatives submerged the spikes in concrete and, when Tesco later removed them, a national news story emerged that put the Black Revs on the map for many of London’s marginalised young people.
Committed to bold and radical activism across London, The Black Revs have seen their direct action against injustice and oppression frequently capture headlines, but surprisingly little detail on their organisation has featured in mainstream media. More often than not, their individual experiences of discrimination and wide-ranging aspirations for change are ignored by newspapers. At best, these activists are shoehorned under the banner of Black Lives Matter with many other anti-racism groups, despite having a distinctive history and ethos of their own.
The Black Revs story is the centrepiece of Generation Revolution, a challenging new documentary from directors Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless, who for two years plunged themselves into the world of black and ethnic minority activism to create this insightful film, exploring the new forms of radicalism that have recently fertilised all over London. Focussed on reclaiming spaces, narratives and ideas for the marginalised and disenfranchised, these emerging networks have huge scope and ambition as they tackle the causes and effects of systemic racism, classism and gender inequality. Though the Black Revs take to the fore in this story, we also witness the interventions made by R Movement and Black Dissidents, and the approaches to radical politics of all three make for an interesting comparison.
Frustrated that the names, faces and progressive ideas of these groups are so often missing from the headlines, Younis and Quarless quote news clippings and social media to frame the trials of this new socially-engaged generation in a meaningful narrative. They depict a defiant and determined crop of radicals by weaving their testimonies with striking first-hand footage of the black- and brown-led demonstrations they have participated in. Compassionate and intelligent, the activists repeatedly defy the ‘violent’ or ‘angry’ stereotypes that are so often applied to them from the outside. They are captured discussing the nature of misogyny, handing out care packages to the homeless, and educating the young on how to avoid unfair arrest.
Like many other intimate documentaries of protest movements, the approach in Generation Revolution is hardly even-handed, sometimes failing to breach an audience that might not naturally sympathise with Black Lives Matter. But it is also bold and unmitigated, readily exposing the difficulties and tensions that emerge between the impassioned radicals. Younis and Quarless are unafraid to dig deep into the inner dynamics of each activist group, unearthing a very human level of drama beneath the energy, pride and bombast of the main characters.
Rather than taking a holistic view of black activism in London, or of the wider context of radical protest in 21st-century Britain, Generation Revolution homes in on these characters and the development of their relationships as they undertake direct action. The result is an overview of youth activism that reminds us of the power struggles that can exist within a movement as well as outside it. The Black Revs undoubtedly steal a large part of the drama, largely as a result of their fiery founder, Arnie Hill, whose militant approach starts to alienate his comrades after it induces violence on the streets. We see him take a lively Reclaim Brixton protest on a dark turn towards clashes with police – ending in arrests, pepper spray and the eventual collapse of his authority.
Often tasked with mollifying Arnie is Tej, a newcomer to the Black Revs who acts as something of a protagonist in Generation Revolution. Her thoughtful, sensitive outlook is palpable during her interviews, in which she opens up on the intensity of radical politics and on the internal conflicts she overcame during her first turbulent year of activism. Other fresh faces to the scene include Tay, the genial and unpretentious organiser of R Movement, who at 18 shows impressive knowledge of intersectional feminism and of circumventing the stop and search tactics of police. There is also Alex, who speaks highly of the communities that have made her feel welcome since arriving in London years ago from rural France. More recently, she joined the Black Revs, inspired by their move to pour concrete on Tesco's spikes.
From the Black Dissidents, we are introduced to Josh, who is sincere and articulate as he explains his deeply-held motivations for taking direct action. "Once you see the injustice in the world, you can't do anything else but this," he affirms. As Generation Revolution reaches its climax, brave footage shows the undue consequences of Josh's defiance as he is bundled into the back of a police van. He and other Black Dissidents had chained themselves together on a motorway near Heathrow, provoking disruption and clashes with police that remind us of the more recent Black Lives Matter protest at London City Airport.
Generation Revolution arrives as a timely complement to the recent Black History Month, offering a valuable and original take on the recent history of black activism and radicalism, and of race relations in the UK more broadly. Like all provocative histories, the film makes a strident reclamation of this narrative. We see bold young activists reclaiming their voices, taking to the streets in the face of inequality and injustice to reclaim their rights and the rights of others.
As they do so, we also see their agency and vitality reclaimed. Too often, young black and ethnic minority activists are pigeon-holed into a perverse typology that excludes them from politics and undermines their voices and grievances. Die-ins and airport occupations provoke far more outrage than understanding or sympathy in public discourse, their participants painted as volatile and disruptive before any consideration is given to the sources of their dissent.
But even if the activism featured in Generation Revolution has had limited results, the film’s reclamation of black radical narratives marks an important step in itself. Younis and Quarless offer a conduit to understanding for outsiders to this movement, and valuable lessons to those who continue to be involved across London. Generation Revolution is emotive, raw and sometimes rough around the edges, but it's ultimately an inspiring and memorable take on the courage of a generation on the rise to empowerment.