Rock Docs Spotlight: “White Riot” (2020)

This new documentary directed by Rubika Shah could not have been released at a more favorable time. It is a lively and concise look back at the U.K’s Rock Against Racism movement of the late Seventies. The group was a direct counter-protest to the rise of the virulent anti-immigrant political party the National Front. The RAR was a grassroots movement that were supported by many high-profile punk and reggae bands from that musically fertile era. Coming as it does during the hangover period of Britain’s Brexit fiasco, and the restive aftermath of the election that ousted American’s unapologetic bigot of a president, White Riot shows how this struggle against humanity’s inner demons is a perpetual, vital cause.

The only real beef I have with White Riot is its title. Also the name of the Clash’s first single, the song was a fervent call for multi-racial unity against a common foe: a government indifferent to the many societal and economic woes facing the working-class at the time. But the song could be misconstrued the other way (and occasionally was in 1977) and may also lead some to think that this is a film about Joe Strummer and Co. Although the Clash do make several appearances, this is squarely a film about a movement where music plays but a supporting role. Central to this tale is Rock Against Racism founder Red Saunders, now an old grizzly bear of a man sitting in his office surrounded by the memorabilia of the time, esp. many back issues of the group’s handmade newspaper, Temporary Hoardings. Early on, Shah uses some of the available stock footage of National Front rallies and marches, with their drearily obvious signs (“It’s Our Country, Let’s Win It Back”) and speech snippets by those like the odious NF leader Enoch Powell and their paunchy and punchable “activities head” Martin Weber. Saunders came from a background in agit-prop theater and knew how to gain attention for a cause without being a bore about it. When Saunders, who is also a photographer, was asked to shoot at a punk concert, he was instantly bowled over by the Clash. Here was the musical energy that could match the drive of his upstart social movement. The Rock Against Racism manifesto was re-printed in many of Britain’s biggest music mags and that movement quickly spread. Bands that played at RAR-related shows were X-Ray Spex, 999, Steel Pulse, XTC, Sham 69 and the Tom Robinson Band; several members show up in interview snippets. But director Shah makes no mistake in pointing out that the National Front had made race prejudice an “acceptable point of view” in Britain at that time. This extended to some prominent old-guard rock stars. Included in this shameful category was David Bowie (who opined that the nation could “benefit from a fascist leader”) and Rod Stewart, who suggested (from the comfort of his new home in Los Angeles) that all of the UK’s immigrants “should be sent home.” Most egregious was Eric Clapton who, during an infamous 1976 concert in Birmingham, launched into a drunken racist tirade (“get the coons out”) while also asking minority fans in the audience to raise their hands and chanting the NF slogan “Keep Britain White.” Of course, Saunders was all over this, bitterly criticizing Clapton (who built his career on the blues) of musical colonialism and suggesting that the guitar-god may be suffering from a touch of “brain damage.” True, punk did sometimes dabble in Nazi iconography, but you always got the feeling this was for shock value and not the sort of contemptible white privilege on display in the examples above. An enjoyable aspect of White Riot is the emphasis on the inner workings of Temporary Hoardings and the current interviews with staffers like “Irate” Kate Webb, Syd Shelton and Lucy Whitman. The grassroots organizing, in an age before cell phones and the Internet, is inspiring as are the animated re-creations pf the newspaper’s cut-and-paste punk aesthetic. After months of rumbling with NF marchers and right-wing yobs, RAR had its moment in a bravura march from Trafalgar Square (see photo above) to Victoria Park, the ensuing demonstration and concert (headlined by the Clash) drawing close to 100,000 folks. The National Front fizzled at the polls in the ensuing general election (1.3%) but the vote also saw the election of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, who employed the dog whistle instead of the boot to exploit the cause of white grievance. Yet the celebration of cultural diversity promoted by Rock Against Racism has taken hold over the decades, even as populations seem intent on going backwards. So the struggle goes on, but Rubik Shah’s compelling work can act as a valued piece to show us again the way forward. ************************************************** You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick. rick.ouellette@verizon.net

2 comments

  1. Our local Arts Centre reopened recently after being closed since mid March. This was the first film they were showing. Really wanted to see it but sadly, for obvious reasons, only 25 tickets per showing were available and it was sold out. Still really want to see this film, especially after reading your blog post. The title is a bit misleading but hopefully lots of people will get to see it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s