White Riot is a strong and engaging new documentary that that explores the area
in which politics and rock intersect. The film chronicles the anti-fascist Rock
Against Racism movement which started in England in the 70s and spread across
The film was made by Rubika Shaw, a promising new British film maker with talent
to burn. The film is her feature debut, and it is an expansion of her 2017
short, White Riot: London. Shah has had her shorts screened at Sundance, Tribeca,
Hot Docs, Berlin and other festivals to great acclaim.
Shah expertly assembled and combined stills and familiar and never seen before
documentary footage, with a recent interview with Red Saunders, the main
instigator of the Rock Against Racism
movement. Most impressively she animates real pages from his fanzine and makes
them come to life.
As punk was exploding in the UK (it was a much more popular phenomena there than
in the USA) ,there was also a simultaneous and disturbing movement toward
fascism within the punk movement and the wider culture. Punk rockers such as
Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious sometimes wore swastikas for ironic effect (they
were not Nazis and never professed to adhere to the party’s beliefs) , but some
of their fans might have misread it and and joined right wing, anti-immigrant
Fascism also entered the mainstream media with the rise of The National Front
and the controversial anti-immigrant politician, Enoch Powell. Rock guitarist,
Eric Clapton helped put the spotlight on the group and the man. He outraged many
when he gave an infamous, extremist and racist speech during a concert in which
he told all foreigners to just leave. Ironically, Clapton, who deserves his
acclaim for being one of the greatest ever guitarists, has often emulated and
appropriated black culture and covered the songs of poor African American blues
musicians. He also covered the anti-authoritarian Bob Marley “I Shot the Sherriff”, before supporting politicians that would oppress people of color that
look like Marley.
Many rock fans were outraged by Clapton’s speech including Red Saunders, the
famous rock photographer. Sanders wrote a letter to the biggest UK rock
magazines, Melody Maker and New Musical Express (NME) which encouraged rockers and music fans to stand
against the movement. Saunders and some associates founded the Temporary
Hoarding fanzine, which is brought to life in this film. They also organized
live events to raise money and increase awareness of their cause.
The movement culminated in the famous Rock Against Racism concert which
assembled many of England’s greatest punk, new wave and Indy bands such as the
Marxist post punk funk group The Gang of Four; political punks, Sham 69;
the female led and anti consumerist punk group, X Ray Spex: the British reggae
band Steel Pulse: and the gay anthem creating, Tom Robinson band.
For many the undisputed highlight was The Clash, who were one of the best and
most critically acclaimed bands of the time. They played their classic anthem
“White Riot, ” at the show which inspired the film’s title. But the song was not
supporting white power or white nationalist groups, and was actually in
opposition to their ideas. Clash members had said that they were hoping that
poor white people would be inspired by black protest movements and emulate them.
Before the concert many anti-fascist groups marched in a unified protest. The
police tried to discourage it and one policeman who was interviewed scoffed and
said they would be lucky to get 50 people. In fact, it was an unqualified
success and 80,000 attended. In contrast when the National Front had earlier decided to
march through the racially mixed neighborhood, it was the first time since WWII
that police used riot shields. But the press reported that the majority of the
police supported the National Front. Two recent fictional films (Beats and last
year’s Blinded by the Light) do a good job of covering the same era and some of
the same incidents,
White Riot is a visually interesting and intellectually challenging documentary that is
highly recommended. Although it takes place in 1970s England, the film is just
as timely and more relevant than ever. Viewers will surely see many parallels
with what is going on in the USA right now.
White Riot It is currently playing at the Music Box Theatre’s virtual theatre,
see below for viewing information.