White Riot Review
The economy is in the bin, unemployment sky high, the UK led by an ineffective government and Black and Asian people are under attack from fascists. What could easily be an introduction to life in 2020, is in fact a recollection of the mid-70s, as seen in Rubika Shah’s debut full-length documentary, White Riot. Meanwhile, the likes of Eric “Keep Britain white” Clapton, Rod ‘Immigrants go home’ Stewart and David "I believe in fascism" Bowie felt the need to throw their support behind Enoch Powell, further bolstering the far-right cause.
Hearing some of the world’s biggest musicians of the time spout their ignorance proved to be the last straw for a small group of grassroots activists in London. With the National Front gaining in popularity, Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno and others penned a letter to the NME expressing their disgust at Clapton's racist tirade at a Birmingham concert. It led to the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR), an organisation that would run for six years until 1982, putting on over 500 shows around the UK.
Most of the founders can be heard in Shah's award-winning documentary, recalling the journey from the writing of that letter through to a march of around 100,000 people from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney, culminating in a free concert headlined by the likes of The Clash, Steel Pulse and the Tom Robinson Band. For those living in Hackney today it may come as a surprise to learn it was once the heartland of the National Front, home of its headquarters and the largest proportion of its supporters. Of course, this was before large swathes of white people left to settle in Essex, at a time when the East End was notoriously racist (and still is in parts).
Shah does a good job of grounding us in the mood of the time, a period of punk and rebellion, when the post-war generation felt the effects of a bankrupt Britain bailed out by the IMF. As always, Black and Asian people became easy targets of blame and anti-immigration talk too often spilled over into violence. “Our job was to peel back the Union Jack to reveal the Swastika,” says Red Saunders, as RAR went to work creating a cross-country network from the ground up.
In-between the various talking heads White Riot employs fanzine ‘cut-out’ style graphics to emphasise its points and push the narrative along. RAR’s own fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, offered the opportunity for a wider range of issues to be addressed, including gay and lesbian representation in rock music. Contributors recall the painstaking work that went into putting together each publication and the hands-on guerilla marketing that enabled thousands of new members to sign up and organise all around the UK.
Outside of RAR’s activity, Shah also paints a broader picture of 1970s Britain, where causal racism on TV was the norm, as was racially-motivated violence against Asian and Black communities, which was routinely denied by the police (of course). Along with superb concert footage of Steel Pulse, The Clash and Sham 69, and interview clips with far-right supporters and school kids giving their support to the RAR cause, Shah documents an important part of modern British history and lessons that are now in danger of being forgotten at our peril.
White Riot is available in cinemas and on BFI Player from September 18.