White Riot is an irreverent and thrilling Rock Against Racism doc

The history of the RAR movement, from Eric Clapton's racist comments in 1976 to the 1978 Victoria Park concert. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

No one watching the footage of National Front rallies or hearing anti-immigrant rhetoric in White Riot, a new documentary charting the formation of the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement in 1976, is likely to feel we’ve come very far.

On the other hand, this was a moment when, as Pauline Black of the Selecter puts it, “white people finally [woke] up to the fact that, ‘Oh my God, there’s racism here’” – a feeling echoed recently in the diversity of the Black Lives Matter protests. To her credit, the director Rubika Shah resists the temptation to editorialise. She lets the pictures, and the participants, tell the story.

Like RAR itself, there is a bish-bash-bosh quality to Shah’s film. With its torn headlines, scratchy visuals and irreverent animation, such as the multiple floating Enoch Powell faces, it aspires to the texture of a punk fanzine. RAR’s own periodical, Temporary Hoarding, launched in summer 1977, is partly the work of the photographer and performance artist David “Red” Saunders, who first gets the ball rolling by writing to the music press to oppose racist comments made by Eric Clapton during a concert at the Birmingham Odeon in 1976. The letter ­encourages volunteers to support “a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music”.

Clapton is hardly an outlier. David Bowie expresses admiration for fascism, while Rod Stewart’s remark that “immigrants should be sent home” later earns him a place in a regular feature of Temporary Hoarding known as “Pus Bag Corner”.

The film’s collage format is well suited to cataloguing the rise of RAR. Letters pour in, from merchandise requests (“Please send me a badge, I enclose a 22p postal order”) to heartfelt scribbled confessions (“I myself am going with a black guy and I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks about it!”). Teenagers launch a School Kids Against the Nazis campaign with the slogan: “We are black, we are white, we are dynamite!”

Irate Kate – or Kate Webb as it says on her library card – works in the RAR office and correctly spots that punk “could go either way”; Johnny Rotten comes out decisively against the National Front but Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious dip into the Nazi dressing-up box. RAR aims to sow doubt in the minds of those who are trying on fascism like a swastika armband: the ­“confused racists”, as Saunders describes them, as opposed to “the full-on Nazis”.

To this end, the RAR gigs stipulate racially mixed line-ups. “Always have black and white bands together to break down the fear,” Saunders says. Misty in Roots and Matumbi feature on some of the first bills, and Tom Robinson is an important early champion – not to be confused today with Tommy Robinson, though it’s amusing to imagine that at least a few of the latter’s gormless disciples have downloaded “Glad to Be Gay” by mistake.

White Riot goes on to cover the ugly clashes in Lewisham, south London, in 1977 between the left and the National Front, where the police brutality on display appears to corroborate a boast by the neo-Nazi Martin Webster on the topic of police sympathies. High-ranking officers, it seems, had been mixing with the far right and getting along like a cross on fire.

The documentary culminates on 30 April 1978 at the Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park, east London, which the organisers and supporters, now in alliance with the Anti-Nazi League, reach by marching through the heartland of far-right support in Bethnal Green and Bow, as well as the scene of attacks on the Bengali community on Brick Lane. The musicians, including the Clash and Steel Pulse, play on a stage ­seemingly cobbled together from matchsticks and lumbered with a PA system that makes it sound as if the bands are performing from the inside of a muddy boot. It is a triumph nonetheless.

A daunting amount of footage is compressed into the film’s breezy, accessible format, though perhaps it is all positioned too squarely at the sort of audience which needs to have its memory jogged about the events of the Second World War. There are a few mildly perverse choices: playing ­“London Calling” rather than “White Riot” over the opening credits, or passing off scenes from the Clash’s 1980 film Rude Boy as pure documentary (they’re not).

Shah’s film is thrilling rather than thorough. Interested parties keen to know more should seek out Daniel Rachel’s book Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – an oral history featuring many telling details not included in the film, such as Joe Strummer’s personal reasons for playing the Victoria Park gig (his late brother had been a member of the National Front), or the revelation that one of the respondents to Saunders’ initial call to arms was Rod ­Liddle, who has claimed to be “the third person in Middlesbrough to join Rock Against Racism”. That’s a bit like discovering Nigel Farage was a roadie for Aswad. Still, it’s not where you begin but where you end up that counts. Pus Bag Corner, in this case.

“White Riot” is in cinemas from 18 September

White Riot (15)
dir: Rubika Shah

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

Free trial CSS