‘White Riot’ review: passion, protest and punk politics on the front lines

Rubika Shah's thrilling documentary tells the story of Rock Against Racism – an anti-fascist, DIY movement in the late '70s

On the 5th of August 1976, Eric Clapton played a now infamous gig in Birmingham. During the show, Clapton expressed support for the former Conservative minister Enoch Powell (known for his anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech).

The guitarist even went as far as asking any non-white members of the audience to leave – not just the venue, but also the country. That incident and a series of earlier declarations from famous rock superstars, including David Bowie and Rod Stewart, led Red Saunders, Roger Huddle and a number of their friends in the music industry to form Rock Against Racism (RAR for short).

In Rubika Shah’s debut documentary feature White Riot – a title borrowed from the famous Clash song – she lifts the lid on the genesis of the RAR movement and the result is one of this year’s most engaging rock docs. Using footage from the era interposed with brilliantly crafted visuals, Shah presents a highly relevant reminder of what can be achieved when people unite against the forces of division.

One of the most striking aspects of Shah’s film lies in her use of fanzine-esque visuals, collages and a number of crafty film tools to depict the ethos and DIY nature of the era. This ingenious aesthetic makes White Riot so much more than just a documentary about race. The film also features interviews with three figures who became synonymous with this brilliant movement: co-founders Saunders and Huddle, and Kate Webb who worked in the RAR’s office.

White Riot
‘White Riot’ documents the origins of the Rock Against Racism movement in the 1970s. Credit: Modern Films

Both Saunders and Huddle speak passionately about how they became inundated almost overnight by letters from young men and women from around the country wanting to be part of RAR. While the National Front heavies were busily distributing their dodgy reading paraphernalia outside schools, the guys at the RAR had been quietly, and successfully, building an army of followers who helped spread the word against racism and fascism.

By 1978, the anti-racist movement in the UK had grown so big that it resulted in 100,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hamlets where the NF had just garnered an alarming 17 per cent of the vote in a by-election. That march was followed by an open-air concert at Victoria Park, Hackney, memorable footage from which reappears in this film: The Clash plus the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and X-Ray Spex.

Nobody could fail to connect the similar climate that necessitated the creation of RAR with today’s post-Brexit discourse surrounding nationality and race. Shah’s genius resides in managing to compare both eras effectively, without resorting to the cliched or the careless. Instead, she allows people to speak for themselves. The result is genuinely thrilling, informative and undeniably timely.

Details

  • Director: Rubika Shah
  • Starring: Red Saunders, Dennis Bovell, Mykaell Riley
  • Release date: September 18 (Theatrical)
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