It may seem slightly redundant to wonder how the riots that have broken out across London and in provincial cities over the last few days will come to be represented. That is, of course, if they come to be part of filmic or literary memory at all: it’s an appropriate coincidence that they have broken out thirty years after the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, which have yet to spawn any films. But the cultural reaction to outbreaks of social disorder over the last 30 years or so can give some idea of the representational and imaginative blind-spots in the everyday social assumptions that riots rupture.
The film that seems closest to the current situation is Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). Set against the backdrop of the Parisian banlieue riots of the early 1990s, sparked by poverty, entrenched unemployment and police mistreatment of Afro-Caribbean and Maghrebin youth, most of the film takes place during a lull in the disorder. The lead trio – Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Afro-French Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Algerian Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) – travel into Paris for the day, and an eerie quiet and clarity hangs on the soundtrack; the trio are surrounded by empty, space in each shot. The riots appear as outbursts of action and noise that punctuate this: the clatter of police boots chasing the protagonists through a subway tunnel, raised voices between them and as they scuffle with skinheads. The raw black-and-white cinematography echoes the racial differences that are constantly called up by the characters – differences identified and emphasised by hostility, violent action and the air of tension that pervades the film. To the trio themselves, these are not very significant: the three of them maintain a friendship mediated by the usual crass banter; their families on their estate all know and support each other. It is the social context – their run-ins with white, well-off Parisians in the city itself – that sparks them into deadly significance.
By contrast, the riot in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant that closes Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) is all noise and colour: a blast of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” initiates the fight that starts the tumult; the frame is crammed with bodies, with struggling and roiling limbs, with faces black and white, mouths open in shouts. The roll-call of black power leaders that Pino (John Torturro) cites to Mookie (Spike Lee), and whose faces Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) wants on the pizzeria’s “wall of fame”, sits uncomfortably with the tumult we see shortly afterwards: the pizzeria smashed, invaded, set alight. Race limits their actions to a perverse outburst of self-destruction: as the shop burns behind them, Mookie answers police demands to go home with “This is our home!” The violence and skill of Lee’s cuts, though portraying well the speed and frenzy of events, ultimately contain and stylise the drama. The problem goes to the heart of how to portray disorder, confusion, crowds: narrative cinema demands focus through the lens of a small number of characters; it aligns with a need to simplify, to make riots comprehensible by rooting them in individual and concrete motivations. The opening credits of La Haine, made up of news footage from the riots, are in some ways more effective than the rest of the film: shell-suited, masked and anonymous youths pouring out of shopfronts; police, made anonymous by riot gear, kitting up, charging; smoke roiling from burning cars.
Kassovitz’s incorporation of documentary footage isn’t a much-used tactic, because it isn’t sensational. As the Clash – or, indeed, Public Enemy – proved, riots are glamorous. A point driven home in Julien Temple’s adaptation of Colin Macinnes’s Absolute Beginners (1986). The film’s motor is the excitement of London’s racially mixed jazz scene; the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, that close the book and film, and engulf the teenage protagonists, come out of this friction. The riot-scenes are choreographed as dance sequences a la West Side Story. The film’s contradictory investments in race are masked, resolved, by aestheticisation and by the force of identification with Colin (Eddie O’Connell); the larger conditions that lie at the root of the riots do not even leak through; events, with causes and consequences, are turned into blank spectacle. O’Connell is a little too slick for the role of working-class hipster Colin, and emphasises his distance from the black rioters with whom he all too recently mixed.
The fact is that the riots are already representing themselves: within hours of the outbreak in Tottenham a rash of footage was on Youtube and news broadcasts. The strangeness, perhaps even ugliness, of the film is striking. We see people doing things that no-one expects under normal conditions, and they keep doing them, in a torrent; they are pixellated, badly framed, shaky. But they are, nonetheless, something we would expect to see only in a film – though not, perhaps, any particular film we’ve seen. In a sense the traumatic impact of these images tells us all we need to know – about the grinding social reality that surrounds the moment of riot, that makes the thrill of action, no matter how reckless and self-destructive, seem preferable; about the reality, beneath social apperances, of a society divided against itself. Whether art will catch up with this insight is another question.