London, 1976: The Queen’s Silver Jubilee is nigh, but the country is in the grips of a massive economic depression. The social fallout bifurcates: on the one hand, the alienated urban angst of the punk scene; on the other, the violent racism of Enoch Powell’s National Front, who seek election in order to literally eject all people of colour from the United Kingdom.
While rock legends like Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and, yes, sadly, David bloody Bowie disgraced themselves with their overt support of Britain’s lurch towards totalitarianism (man, we forgive ‘70s era Bowie for an awful lot, don’t we?), on the streets, grassroots activists put their muscles and their minds behind a concerted effort to smash the fash. Filmmaker Rubika Shah, here making her feature debut, selects as her focus the Rock Against Racism (RAR) team, whose basic game plan was to put on gigs featuring both punk legends and reggae luminaries on the bill, with the aim of bridging the gap between oppressed people of colour and disenfranchised white, working class kids who might otherwise find solace marching to Powell’s war drum beat. The result is simply electrifying.
Taking her aesthetic cues from the punk zines of the period, specifically Rock Against Racism’s Temporary Hoarding mag, Shah delivers a cut up montage history of the time, focusing on activist and promoter Red Saunders, who founded RAR and, by the lights of the film, was the movement’s engine. Shah uses the standard talking-heads-plus-archival-footage approach, but clever editing and animation, coupled with a banging soundtrack, lend the proceedings a verve and energy that is absolutely addictive.
Even as we gallop along, White Riot (title taken from the Clash track, naturally) takes pains to fill us in on the political and cultural milieu we’re diving into, demonstrating how overt racism became a legitimised political position thanks to the establishment media’s softly softly approach to far right figureheads, while at the same time skinheads and anti-fascist activists clashed in the streets – and if that sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is. The phrase “the movie we need right now” is getting a bit tiresome (I last said it about Bill & Ted, for god’s sake) but holy heck, White Riot feels timely as fuck and is infused with a righteously angry energy to boot.
A lot of that is down to the soundtrack, of course, and it’s hard not to pump your fist to cuts from The Clash, X-Ray Spex (the much missed Poly Styrene gets rightfully eulogised by many interviewees), Pakistani punks Alien Kulture, Belfast bandits Stiff Little Fingers, and Sham 69. Speaking of the latter, there’s an interesting thread running through the film about the dangers of political apathy, with lead singer Jimmy Pursey ultimately rejecting the band’s violent skinhead fans by performing with The Clash at the climactic 1978 RAR gig in London’s Victoria Park, which saw 80,000 punters rock up to attend, as Red Saunders screamed into the mic that day, “…the carnival against the fucking Nazis!”
Shah’s film ends on an up tempo moment, noting that the National Front were soundly thrashed in the 1979 elections, but you’d be a fool not to recognise the same ugly cycle being played out again right now. With that in mind, White Riot’s value lies not just in it being an excellent historical record, but a rallying cry to resist. A riot of our own, indeed.
Main image: Syd Sheldon