Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: White Riot

Sam Campbell reviews the documentary White Riot, a film about the anti-right wing, Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s.

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Image Credit: Visit Films

Director: Rubika Shah
Starring: Red Saunders, Dennis Bovell, Mykaell Riley
Running Time: 1h 20mins
Rating: 15

Political struggles always take place in the arena of culture and the arts as much as in other aspects of society. Today, the right-wing is persistent in waging culture wars that come as a reaction to trends which are largely aesthetic. In the 1970s there was a similar culture war, in which the leaders of the National Front sought to gain the hearts, minds and rage of Britain’s white working class men.

A major part of the battleground was punk music, and the counter was Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded by the photographer and performance artist Red Saunders in 1976. This film by Rubika Shah presents a portrait of the time, as told by the activists and musicians who led the fight against the British far-right.

White Riot begins with an exposition on the dire state of Britain’s working class in the mid-1970s, with archival footage of the time alongside Saunders’ recollections of the IMF’s imposition of austerity measures. People were destitute, life was bleak.

Saunders and his fellow activists-to-be were involved in the avant-garde theatre scene, no strangers to the radical politics of the emerging underground culture of DIY zines and rowdy gigs that evolved to become what we now call punk rock. Punk united those who longed for a different future, newly invigorated working class kids and counterculture types alike. But there was a sinister other side to this coin – the reactionary force of the National Front.

The ‘Front’, as they are frequently referred to throughout the documentary, had its roots in the Nazi-aligned Britsh Union of Fascists, and was bent on an ideal of racial purity. Frequently launching attacks on Britain’s black and South-east Asian communities, they were drunk on the rhetoric of politicians such as Enoch Powell.

Whether you were a Caribbean bus driver looking for a better life in the mother country of the empire, or a Pakistani shopkeeper who fought for Britain in the war, the Front didn’t care one bit – they wanted you out. Indeed, they would attack your home, your business, and hurl abuse at your children on their way to school. This aspect of the political atmosphere of the time is captured compellingly using a wealth of archive footage, of both members of the National Front and the working class teenagers who opposed them.

As the film shows, there were particularly worrying signs that the Front were on the rise, such as their recruitment drive in and around schools. This was counteracted by anti-racist campaigners, but the racist rot was beginning to take hold. Members of RAR were troubled to see this corrosive ideology penetrating the arts. The event that inspired the beginning of RAR was Eric Clapton’s onstage outburst in support of Enoch Powell, and Bowie’s brief flirtation with fascism.

The first RAR gig, in 1976, took place at the Princess Alice pub in East London, and shortly after Saunders, along with Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford and others, set up the RAR office and the Temporary Hoarding zine. Temporary Hoarding featured mission statements against the rightward cultural shift in music and the arts, as well as interviews and creative pieces with and by sympathetic artists.

Temporary Hoarding is an integral part of the film’s aesthetics, as its graphics are used heavily, as well as being a formal influence in terms of how White Riot is cut and edited visually. Large sections of the documentary appear like a zine, using cut up images and reels of footage.

The operation was a serious undertaking, but had a great deal of success from the outset. Members of RAR began working at the office full time to produce campaign literature, graphic prints, and writing to correspondents and supporters from across the country. They produced resources and advice for those who wanted to put on gigs in other cities, including how to keep safe from right-wing violence.

However, RAR gigs did not always run so smoothly, and they were frequently tasked with facing the divide in punk culture. One example would be the skinhead subculture: ‘It’s not true at all that all skinheads were Nazis,’ Saunders says, ‘but a lot of them were!’ Sham 69, led by frontman Jimmy Pursey, were one band who struggled with this divide. Despite the band’s lyrics, which were intended to inspire class unity rather than race hatred, they had a dedicated core following of NF-aligned fans. They headlined a RAR gig featured in the film, which ended up with skirmishes in the crowd and an attack on the PA system – to the despair of Saunders and Pursey.

In 1978, when RAR organised Carnival Against Racism along with the Anti-Nazi League, they wanted to create an atmosphere of victory, over the racism in culture and in politics. But this was still something of an optimistic stab in the dark – they had no idea whatsoever how successful the event would be.

The Carnival would begin as a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, where a makeshift stage was built to host a gig featuring artists who embodied the values of RAR. The lineup consisted of X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, the Clash, and the Tom Robinson Band. Saunders and co. reminisce in the film about the difficulty of convincing the Clash to take up a support slot before Tom Robinson, before they eventually decided that the cause was more important than their egos.

In the end, the event was the perfect climax of the movement and of this documentary. The number of attendees is believed to be around 100,000, eclipsing by a huge degree the small NF turnout who quickly retreated to the pub. Those artists who played the gig were baffled, never having played to such a large crowd before. One success of the day was Jimmy Pursey’s guest appearance with the Clash, performing the vocals for ‘White Riot’, finally asserting firmly his anti-racist stance without any unwanted interruptions from the Front.

One of Shah’s great successes, I would argue, is the framing of the film. There is a sense about the narrative that is truthful to reality: the movement did not come out of nowhere, and the success of the Carnival was not by any means the end of the battle – in fact, the film ends with a cautionary note that the battle is still far from being won.

All of these things are within the ethos of the piece, and put to the fore. The message is less, ‘look at what we did, now we can live happily ever after’, and more, ‘look at what we did, learn from it, use it’. It is an account of an era, but an era which is continuous with our own.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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