Art has a funny way of finding itself combatting the forces of hatred throughout history. Guerrilla paintings in authoritarian nations; underground theatre criticizing hegemonic powers; iconoclastic films and dances banned by the forces that be. Perhaps most commonly, musicians take up the mantle, deploying their talent to speak, sing, yell, howl and scream the truth. Enter Rock Against Racism, a passionate movement ferociously dedicated to fighting off widespread xenophobic and racist hatred in 1970s Britain.
The movement’s efforts shed light on the evils of the far-right group the National Front, while bringing together rock & rollers from across the country of every demographic to raise a collective fist against hate. Though a monumental period in British political and cultural history, RAR’s efforts have not been canonized with quite as much reverence and detail as the group’s immense achievements might deserve. So thinks Rubika Shah anyway; her new rip-roaring documentary White Riot is a buoyantly energetic firebrand of a film, which both memorializes this fascinating history and makes a riveting case that the 2010s could use a Rock Against Racism of our own.
Based on Shah’s recent short of the same name, this punchy piece exhibits a well-balanced mix of proving its point and having a blast. Shah, with script collaborator Ed Gibbs, takes commendable care in illustrating the 1970s context; the ultra-right National Front are marching in the streets and winning constituencies, Enoch Powell is inciting xenophobic hatred from a position of power, acts of racist violence are peppering London with disturbing regularity, and the police are openly disinterested in protecting their non-white neighbors. Things get personal to the music world when the likes of Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and even David Bowie make some disarmingly fascist-sounding statements seemingly supporting Powell and the National Front’s declarations.
As Red Saunders, one of RAR’s founders, tells it, this provoked a massive backlash among musicians who thought exactly the opposite: immigrants ought to be welcome, artists ought to preach unity not hatred, and those who pushed far-right views ought to be fought off, not listened to. In our modern moment, when talk of ‘canceling’ popular cultural figures causes sharp division left and right, it’s an intriguing moment when a few RAR figureheads gleefully recount ridding themselves of their Clapton and Stewart records without a second thought. How could you hesitate, they ask, to write these guys off when their words quite possibly endangered black and brown people’s lives with their talk of ‘ridding the country’ of their kind? How indeed.
Shah focuses her film largely on Saunders’ recounting of events, letting him guide the viewer through the initial stages of demonstration and protest through performance. From selling anti-racist posters and badges at punk gigs to organizing entire events dedicated to protesting far-right politics, RAR grew and grew with heartening speed. Archival footage contributes intimate examples of RAR’s growing fan base and remarkable popularity. Parts of this film might well bring a tear to the eye, as the footage depicts Britons young and old, white, brown and black, taking pride and solace in RAR’s message of British unity.
Of course, Shah also incorporates moments of pure rock & roll passion, including performances from Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, and RAR’s most famous collaborator, The Clash. Many of the acts that worked with RAR are interviewed, and many offer fascinating insights into the British punk scene of the time. There is a conspicuous weakness in Shah’s approach here, however; though the movement’s message was entirely about ensuring equality and collaboration between white and black people, the group Shah interviews is oddly homogenous. A few black musicians contribute here and there, but overall, the vast majority of the individuals who contribute to the narrative Shah and Gibbs construct are white, which feels disappointing, and at odds with the subject of the piece.
Another sticking point is the missed potential of the film’s conclusion. Shah surreptitiously builds the narrative of White Riot to culminate in the 1978 Carnivals Against Racism concert, a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park that attracted over 100,000 people (although, hilariously, the RAR organizers told the council there would be around 500, to ensure their approval). This structure works brilliantly, resulting in a satisfying climax and a thrilling concert-film finale. It is a pure delight to watch The Clash play “White Riot” to the crowds with their signature freneticism; archival footage from an old interview with the band clarifies that the song’s name stands for the rage white people ought to feel in response to forces of hate — in many ways, RAR’s message of white and black uniting in fury-fueled creativity is the perfect realization of the song’s intention.
That Shah named the film after the song struck me as an ingenious way of exposing the modern relevance of this history; the call for those in positions of power to wake up, switch on, and help out those fighting off discrimination is one that certainly needs to be heard just as much today as back then. Yet Shah does not make this connection, explicitly anyway; instead, White Riot ends rather abruptly after the Carnival performances, and a few informative epilogues. I had expected a BlacKkKlansman-esque montage depicting the resurgence of familiar-sounding far-right movements, and possibly a quick indication of how RAR-style movements could take them on in this new era, but none came. The conclusive tone of the ending feels like a missed opportunity to turn this film into something truly essential.
While not necessarily a paradigm-shifting piece, I would still call White Riot a must-see film of this year. Its documentary craft is impressive, its subject matter enthralling, and its gritty, fanzine-inspired visuals eye-popping. And, naturally, the soundtrack is outstanding; you will leave with at least a few face-melting masterpieces of punk and rock in your head, I guarantee it. I personally recommend sticking “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” by the fascinating X-Ray Spex on as soon as possible afterwards — if Shah’s sharp, smart film and that song’s magnificent madness aren’t enough to make you want to get out and protest fascism far and wide, who knows what will.