Stephen Lawrence: The murdered boy who became a symbol

The programme is called ‘Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation’. But did it?

Stephen Lawrence, murdered 25 years ago in a racially-motivated attack

Stephen Lawrence, murdered 25 years ago in a racially-motivated attack


When the unimaginable has happened, and two parents in a London hospital corridor are told that their 18-year-old son has died, it is all too much to process.

“You’re watching a play, or a drama,” recalls Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, murdered 25 years ago in a racially-motivated attack. “It’s not real. It wasn’t real.”

Her recollections come over a recreation of that scene – the real made unreal again – staged for the new three-part documentary Stephen: The Murder That Changed a Nation (BBC One, Tues-Thurs 9pm).

To disorientate the situation further, Stephen’s story, a flashpoint in Britain’s vexed history of race relations, has already been depicted in film, in Paul Greengrass’s The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and this documentary includes among its contributors the actor who played Doreen.

In part, that highlights the tangles of the case, so longstanding and unresolved that there are now adaptations of it. Stephen’s death, with the ensuing failures in its police investigation and claims of institutional racism, has become a symbol, a political movement and the subject of art.

Here, James Rogan’s series tries to get back to reality. Like many true crime documentaries, it takes a few steps back to get a clearer picture, yet the story keeps getting bigger.

Stabbed near a roundabout, on April 22nd, 1993, by a gang of white youths who approached him with the words, “What what nigger”, Stephen Lawrence was the third young person of colour in a short stretch of time killed in Woolwich, south-east London, near a stronghold for the British National Party.

“When the economy suffers and goes down, racism always goes up,” says Lee Jasper, an anti-racist activist. The community, however, tipped off the police with the identities of the gang members, which the investigation considered information but not evidence, instead scrutinising Lawrence’s family, his friends, looking for reasons closer to home.

Frustrated by the police, and assisted by activists, the family received a visit from Nelson Mandela, who voiced his own concern, and – supposedly without connection – two addresses were raided by the police the following day.

But the case stalled: Stephen’s friend and witness to his murder, Duwayne Brooks, whose emotional interviews here makes for heartwrenching viewing, was involved in a protest that turned riotous, and the incident was used to discredit him.

That Doreen and the family took matters into their own hands, launching the first private murder prosecution in Britain in 150 years, is the subject of tonight’s episode, and will swell to include interviews from the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre and the British prime minister Theresa May.

But to what extent it changed Britain, as the title insists, is another question.

“Much in the same way that Brexit changed the nation,” Stephen’s perceptive cousin Mat Bickley says of the boy’s murder, “it brought back those feelings: maybe I’m not part of this.”

After all this time, the investigation into Stephen’s murder is ongoing. But there is still much more to learn from it.