In late 1970s Britain, punk was having its moment, yet so was The National Front. The country was deeply divided over immigration and the far-right fascist political party was rapidly gaining strength, sound familiar yet?
Outraged by a racist speech from Eric Clapton where he expressed support for anti-immigrant Tory MP Enoch Powell, music photographer Red Saunders wrote a letter to the music press call for rock to be a force against racism. The letter was published by Melody Maker, NME and Sounds and was met with a flood of support.
Saunders grouped up with other like-minded creatives to create Rock Against Racism (RAR) and fanzine Temporary Hoarding. Their aim was to report on the topics the mainstream media had missed like immigration, police bias and the Catholic side of the Northern Ireland conflict. They began to clash with The National Front, who started committing acts of violence against the RAR (which included petrol-bombing their HQ). The heavy hitters of the current punk scene including The Clash, Tom Robinson and Steel Pulse soon rallied around the movement.
The debut feature of Rubika Shah is smart yet all too quick tour of the scene. This documentary features archival footage of concerts, strikes and riots alongside newspaper clippings, handwritten letters and fragments of Temporary Hoarding. The seriousness of the issues raised in the film gets lost in the cut and paste aesthetic of the narrative. The stories don’t feel well woven together, the beats between archival footage too long. A documentary about a punk movement can be many things, but it should never be boring.
Featured is a decent variety of interviews from the RAR founders and the black artist’s involved (including Selecter’s Pauline Black and Steel Pulse’s Mykaell Riley). Other players in this story, including the late Clash singer Joe Strummer, have their say in archive clips. The really captivating stories are those from the common people, the protestors, the workers, the victims. The reasons they felt so connect to punk music and the RAR movement is something that could have been expanded to make this an even more social tale. The portion talking about police profiling feels especially relevant in the current climate, but again feels entirely too skimmed over.
The film smartly sets up the world that created RAR, where The Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour were considered the height of comedy but fails to follow up with showing how RAR impacted the world. There is thankfully no nostalgia for this bygone era, Shah is almost encouraging this DIY style of protest. It’s a world away from the current performative style of company sponsored social media activism.
Given the recent debates Brexit-motivated talks considering British identity, with the spike in racially motivated crimes, White Riot couldn’t have been released at a better time. The parallels are so scarily obvious between our current political climate and that of 1976, that Shah doesn’t need to make a point to mention them.
Shah ends with footage of The Clash performing at the 1978 carnival in Victoria Park, the band being used as a crutch throughout the narrative. It almost feels the director is not confident in her politic story that she uses the name-awareness of the famous punk band.
RAR continued four years after the carnival, yet the documentary ends abruptly in 1976. The movement impacted Australia, South Africa and USA, yet none of mentioned in White Riot. RAR has come back into prominence recently, inspiring the Love Music Hate Racism campaign, it’s a shame the documentary couldn’t have ended on a more contemporary note.
Winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, White Riot is scary in how much it echoes the current news stories. Quotes from The National Front could have been taken from recent Trump and Brexit news stories. Perhaps this documentary, asides from the gaps between narrative strands, is just too relevant. It’s hard to see this as recent history and more of past echoes of current events. It’s just too tiring to watch things people of colour are still living through, portrayed as the past without mentioning the current climate.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy