Black Power, Black revolution, Black militancy - in a rapid game of Word Association, you’d be somewhat forgiven for instantly connecting these phrases with America. In the history lessons we were taught in schools, American flags were always emblazoned on the front covers of textbooks that covered civil rights. We learnt of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, the Black Panther Party and Martin Luther King Jr. It could be argued there was a deliberate attempt to align issues of civil and racial rights with America, painting Britain as far away from any of that as possible. But that isn’t true – and Sky’s Michael X documentary is just a small piece of evidence that shows this.
The documentary focuses on Michael X, born in Trinidad and Tobago as Michael de Freitas, a self-styled Black civil rights activist based in 1960’s London. Emigrating to Notting Hill, Michael began working for the infamous Peter Rachman, a slum landlord that was notorious for exploiting and violently intimidating his vulnerable tenants. This is the Michael we’re exposed to at the beginning of the documentary, which has the job of relaying the reasons behind his divisiveness.
One cutaway scene allows viewers to hear the words of Vee Davis, a childhood friend of Michael’s, who explains that upon her arrival from Trinidad, Michael attempted to coerce her into prostitution. This is all part of the storytelling, which the documentary does so well, and we get first-hand insight into Michael de Freitas – what people thought of him, what he thought of himself, and how that all played out.
A dark start to Michael’s move to London is rapidly followed by a drastic change of heart – the documentary explains that Michael, wanting to get involved in the increasingly radical politics picking up speed around London, began to align himself with political groups that focused on race relations in the UK. The contrast is stark, and again the documentary does a great job of showcasing just exactly what made Michael X so divisive. Director James Van der Poole expertly uses a mixture of first-hand accounts and amazing archived footage to build Michael’s story for us as viewers. I asked him about the difficulties he faced when putting together a documentary on someone like Michael X. “It was hard – trying to get in contact with people to talk about someone so divisive was already difficult, and then you add a pandemic and lockdowns on top of that. But I had a great team around me, and we were convinced this was a story that needed to be told”.
As viewers, we’re taken around the UK with Michael and we’re given insight into the evolution of his political career. From meetings with Malcolm X, to rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to his first arrest for inciting racial hatred following a speech he made; his rise and fall is then further examined following his departure from England back home to Trinidad, and the legal and criminal battles that followed. This only adds to the story of Michael – someone who, admittedly, not many young people in Britain would be aware of today. The 90-minute special excels where the footage does the talking – this certainly isn’t propaganda or a brain-washing tool. ‘Michael X’ the documentary is what happens when history meets drama, except none of this drama has been tweaked or edited for entertainment purposes. When asked about his decision-making process to be a part of the film, historian and human rights-activist Professor Gus John didn’t mince his words. “Michael was an opportunist, and I didn’t like him. He knew exactly what he was doing and what to say to get in the right room, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he was doing the right thing. Many people in the same circles would say the same thing as me today. But when James approached me to be a part of this documentary, I eventually(!) said yes. Because this is history.” Despite the focus on America’s race relations when we were younger, Michael X is a gripping documentary on a political figure’s rise and fall, disregarded by shame and infamy, and somewhat of an expose on the racial tensions and landscape in 1960’s Britain, an overlooked but highly important period.
Michael X: Hustler, Revolutionary, Outlaw premiered on Sky Documentaries and NOW on Saturday 16th October, and is available to watch on-demand.