Documentary

How the New Stephen Lawrence Documentary Was Made

A chat with the producer of the BBC's 'Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation'.
Nana Baah
London, GB
Photos: BBC

Twenty-five years ago this month, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially-motivated attack in Eltham, south-east London. A new three-part BBC documentary series, Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation, documents Lawrence's short life, his killing and the profound effect it had on British attitudes towards race and the police.

Famously, a 1998 public inquiry into Lawrence's murder labelled the Metropolitan police "institutionally racist" – a charge still levelled at the force by lawyers and top-ranking police officers today. The series – produced by Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, of Amy and Senna fame – aired this week, and many viewers have taken to social media to remark on the fact that so little seems to have changed, and that this makes an already hard watch even more difficult.

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I spoke to series producer, Victoria Musguin-Rowe, about the making of the documentary.

VICE: How did you come to make this documentary?
Victoria Musguin-Rowe: James [Gay-Rees] has a mutual friend with Doreen Lawrence [Stephen's mother]. Doreen suggested that once it got to the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death she was keen to draw a line under the case publicly. After 25 years in the spotlight she was ready to begin a new chapter in her life and give herself an opportunity to mourn the death of her son. She decided that she wanted to do a film or a documentary that would be quite definitive, so when she was introduced to James it made sense. Previously, James had made a film called Amy [documenting the life of Amy Winehouse] and it was a landmark film, so I think Doreen felt it would make sense to be working with James.

Why is Stephen a three-part series and not a feature documentary like Amy?
Initially it was, but after doing some research into it, it became quite clear that 25 years is such a huge amount of time to fit into that, especially when there have been so many big legal, political and societal ramifications as a result of this case – it would be hard to squeeze that into 90 minutes. So at that point it was decided on as being a series. We thought the BBC would be a good home for it. As it had such a big impact on British society, it should be on a channel like the BBC as it's such a British institution.

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What challenges did you run into while making the documentary?
We wanted to make it a TV series, but still with the same ambitions as Amy. One of the biggest problems of the series is that, unlike Amy Winehouse – who was a celebrity who was filmed constantly and photographed everywhere – Stephen essentially became a celebrity in death. His parents didn’t have a camera, and it wasn’t that common to be filming, so a big challenge was to find footage of Stephen.

We were told by one of Stephen’s friends that he loved to go and watch a Channel 4 music show, so the team went through weeks' worth of footage of this material, watching every show second by second, hoping to find some footage of Stephen. We were really lucky because we did find some, and we felt like we found a diamond at that point, to have found footage where Stephen is so happy and full of joy. It was a big deal for us to be able to show Stephen in life rather than always thinking about him in death.

It was challenging bringing to life the early parts of Stephen’s story, but once Nelson Mandela became involved [Lawrence's parents met with Mandela a month after his murder] then the story kind of picked up pace in the public, so from that point there was a lot more for us in the archives.

What do you make of the reactions to it so far?
The reaction on Twitter has been amazing. We got 12,500 tweets on the series. That was a success for us; we really wanted people to be talking about this issue and the case. A lot of people asked us at the beginning, "Do you have anything new to add to this case? Why are you going back over it again after 25 years?" But the reaction we got shows there was a real justification for us doing it. Also, I felt personally – as someone in my twenties, who was quite young when this case happened – that there are a lot of people who don’t really understand what happened in the case. Some don’t really understand the ins and out of the case and what happened. We really felt strongly that young people should be watching this and looking at this. I think the reaction on Twitter shows that they were engaging with it.

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What steps did you take to ensure that such an important topic was handled with care?
There’s such a big history that comes with this case, and there's so many sensitivities to it, and that's quite a hard thing to navigate when you’re coming into the case new and fresh and trying to understand each individual's experiences. Ultimately, I think if we’re doing our job right then we want the people who have been involved to feel that we have looked after them and treated them fairly.

When you take on such a big case, with it comes such a huge sense of responsibility, so you really want to get that right. It’s more of an ethical thing for us, to make sure we’ve done the case justice in the way that we’ve shown it. And the people who have allowed us to film with them think that we’ve done a good job.

Two people have been convicted for Stephen's murder, but the case is still an active investigation. Did that cause any problems?
The Metropolitan Police have said that they’ve run out of new leads and so are hoping that our documentary will bring forward people with new information. We very closely followed what was already out in the public domain, so in that sense we were quite lucky that this is a very heavily reported case, so there was quite a lot for us out there to explore.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
We really wanted to do something that Stephen’s family are happy with, in the sense that Doreen had expressed that she saw this as an opportunity to close this sort of public chapter of her life.

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I really wanted to let people get to know a bit about Stephen and see that side of his life before he became this public figure. I wanted people to get a sense of what Stephen was like and who his family were before all of this happened to them. So I think what was quite unique about what we’ve done with this case, as opposed to other filmmakers, is that we actually went back and explored Stephen’s life before this happened.

We also really wanted to give people a platform to talk about their experiences of the case, and that’s what we felt was quite different about this series. Ultimately, it was testimony to them all, driven by experience and recollections, and our hope is that it would create something quite new and fresh to hear such a wide ranging set of perspectives.

Finally, what changes do you hope the documentary could make?
I hope that it will get people talking about these issues. We were quite inspired by the OJ: Made in America series, which used the OJ Simpson case as a way of exploring race relations in LA, but also popular culture and the concept of celebrity culture and all of these different layers. It wasn’t just about the OJ case, it looked at what life was like across that period in LA.

So when we first became involved in this case, we wanted the series to look at some of those aspects. The director [James Rogan] chose to look at the Windrush [generation, of Caribbean immigrants] at the beginning of the first episode, and what was surreal was that when the film finished, the first thing that came on BBC News was the current situation around Windrush.

We hoped that people would be talking about it, but what we hadn’t realised is that it would be quite so relevant to today. And the same with talking about knife crime [currently], it feels like a really old case and that things would have changed, but in the press over the last couple of weeks, knife crime is still as much an issue as it was back then.

Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation is available on BBC iPlayer.

@nanasbaah