Glass reviews White Riot – Rubika Shah’s film about the Rock Against Racism movement

“We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. LOVE MUSIC. HATE RACISM.” – Rock Against Racism statement, 1976


A FLURRY of archive news reports and interviews in White Riot‘s opening sequence establishes the disturbing historical context of Rubika Shah’s new film. It is 1976 and the UK’s largest far-right party, the National Front (NF), is ascendant: selling newspapers outside schools, commanding huge numbers at rallies and espousing violent racism with impunity. Martin Webster, the NF’s National Activities Organiser and a particularly vile character, holds forth to crowds about protecting Britain from “invaders with black, brown and yellow faces”. His preferred policy is “the phased repatriation of all coloured people, their descendants and dependents” — ethnic cleansing on a national scale.


Image from the film White Riot. Photograph: Ray Stevenson

At the same time, punk has transformed youth culture overnight and maintains an uncomfortably ambiguous relationship with the far-right. While many punk fans are instinctive anti-racists, others flirt with Nazi iconography. As one contributor notes gravely, “it could have gone either way”. Out of this cauldron comes Rock Against Racism (RAR), a grassroots cultural movement harnessing the power of music to smash the fascist threat. “The job of RAR”, we are told, “was to peel back the Union Jack and reveal the swastika.”

While it has popped up in various films and TV programmes covering 1970s music and politics, RAR has not previously been a documentary subject in its own right. With White Riot, Shah corrects this oversight and gives us a bracing portrait of a divided society that will feel remarkably familiar to audiences in 2020.


Paul Simonon on stage at the Rock Against Racism concert at Victoria Park, London 1978. Image from the film White Riot. Photograph: Ray Stevenson


Through new interviews we are introduced to the ragtag group of performers, designers and typesetters who first conceived of RAR and embarked on the improbable mission of enlisting the most influential bands of the day for a political movement. Co-founder Red Saunders, mellowed slightly since his days as agitprop theatre persona Mr Oligarch, identifies Eric Clapton’s notorious racist tirade in support of Enoch Powell as a turning point.

Saunders’ historic letter to the NME skewered the hypocrisy of a white rock star who could shout “send them back.” while making money covering Bob Marley. “P.S. Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you, mate.” Other contributors include reggae musician Dennis Bovell, Pauline Black from The Selector, and Clash drummer Topper Headon, all of whom provide valuable insights into the nuanced dynamics of the cultural moment.

The pre-social media world of grassroots activism is lovingly evoked: making phone calls, publishing DIY literature, writing hundreds of letters. In an anecdote which nicely captures the innocent, people-powered nature of the campaign, the RAR team receive a letter from a young supporter in Bognor Regis lamenting the absence of a local branch. They hurriedly inform him that there is now a Bognor Regis RAR branch and he is it.

The anarchic Temporary Hoarding magazine, brainchild of graphic designer Syd Shelton, provides director Shah with a narrative device that liberates the film from an over-reliance on talking heads. The cleverly animated collages, rich in puns and biting satire, give the film a visual energy that mirrors the adrenalin-fuelled soundtrack.


Image from the film White Riot. Photograph: Ray Stevenson.

Shah also makes compelling use of archive footage, rooting RAR in a broader context of political struggles, not only against racism but for gay rights and for justice in Northern Ireland. In older documentaries about injustice, black and white clips risk breeding a certain complacency (things have changed since then, right?); in White Riot, the vivid colour and high resolution of the archive footage have the effect of erasing the intervening years and bringing home the relevance of the anti-racist struggle. Physical violence is rarely far from the surface, and scenes of fascists marching defiantly through Lewisham chanting in support of the NF may shock younger viewers for whom racism has often worn a more polite mask.

Pioneering cultural theorist Stuart Hall makes a brief appearance in one TV clip, observing that “extreme racists have become part of balance, an acceptable point of view within the spectrum of political opinion.” It’s a reminder that current debates about how liberal democracies should deal with the existence of extremist ideas – pitting “free speech” against the risks of normalising racism – are nothing new. A luta continua.

Shah ends her film with footage of the now legendary RAR carnival in Victoria Park in April 1978, featuring Tom Robinson Band, The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex and Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69. In reality, this was no end-point, just an early highlight; a few months later, another RAR carnival would be headlined by Elvis Costello, and the movement continues today in a less radical guise as Love Music Hate Racism. But documentaries cannot show everything, and White Riot is a welcome tribute to RAR’s first, most vibrant chapter— an extraordinary fusion of culture and politics that changed society for the better.

by Jackson Caines

For more information about where you can view White Riot, visit this link