White Riot, directed by Rubika Shah and released in North America by Film Movement, is a timely and relevant documentary movie though it depicts events from 40 years ago. The late 1970s in Great Britain saw the rise of both a neo-nazi political party, The National Front, and Enoch Powell, first a Conservative Party Cabinet Minister then a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, who called for the deportation of all immigrants in Great Britain.
However, even more unsettling for people involved in pop culture, were public statements by both Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart supporting Powell’s calls to send people of colour back to where they came from. It was the comments by these two establishment rock stars which motivated the formation of the grass roots organization, Rock Against Racism (RAR).
The documentary tells the story of how a group of determined, and angry, music lovers came together to form the nucleus of an organization that helped build a grassroots network of people to combat the rise of the far right. Any of this sounding familiar?
But these folk didn’t have cell phones or social media. They had to rely on armies of volunteers, flyers, and putting out fanzines about music and politics. Their cut and paste newspaper, “Temporary Hoarding” had everything from interviews with The Clash and Poly Styrene (front woman for X-Ray Spex) to the latest rundown on what the National Front was up to.
It was an article one of their people wrote expressing outrage about Eric Clapton, referring to him as a cultural colonialist, that really got the ball rolling as it was picked up by the big music papers in the UK. When people head about it, and the organization RAR, they started sending donations and membership fees to RAR headquarters in exchange for pins and fanzines to show their support.
Taking its name from a Clash song, White Riot shows how Jamaican, South East Asian, European kids, musicians, and people of all backgrounds and class – which in England was a big deal – came together to fight racism because a few people bothered to make a fuss.
The movie makes it clear this was a real Do It Yourself movement. It was people off the street, from the neighbourhood pub, and school kids who didn’t the like the messages of hate coming from politicians and musicians. They were answering the call of the song “White Riot” for all people to go into the streets to support the struggle for justice.
Naturally as this was also happening alongside the opening salvos of the punk revolution in London White Riot is also about the music and the musicians who became part of pushing back against racism. Interviews from the 70s with people like Joe Strummer and Poly Styrene are mixed with contemporary interviews with Tom Robinson, Topper Headen from The Clash, Pauline Black from The Selector, and the only South East Asian punk band at the time, Alien Kulture.
All of these bands, plus Steel Pulse, Sham 69 and more, did concerts at various times for RAR, but the biggest was in 1978. RAR organized a march and a concert. The march traveled from London’s Trafalgar Square across the city to Victoria Park, the heartland of National Front support, where the bands would play. 100,000 people turned up for the march and the concert with buses travelling from as far away as Scotland.
As director, Shah has done an excellent job of mixing archival footage of the times and the bands with contemporary footage of the key people behind RAR to give us a wonderful visual and musical picture of the times. From the head of London’s metropolitan police force denying there are any organized groups behind the uptick in racist attacks to interviews with South Asian storekeepers talking about being beaten up by skin heads, we’re given a clear picture of the uphill battle they were facing.
White Riot might be about events that took place 40 plus years ago in a different country but everything described will sound eerily familiar to today. This is one of the most inspiring and hopeful movies you’ll see this year. You can watch it on demand through Film Movement as of October 16 2020.