Two things struck me during my viewing of White Riot. Firstly, I was (only mildly) shocked to see how entirely contemporary the subject matter sounded. This was the Britain of my childhood being played back at me 40 years on. Despite growing up in the racially integrated and hopefully progressive 80’s and 90’s, despite the righteous and tolerant one world digital village of the noughties, but in recent years I’m unsure if we’ve really moved forwards at all. The hate speech in the opening segments could worryingly come from a news bulletin captured at any point from 2016 to now.
The other thing that struck me was the crisp clarity of the footage. We’re used to seeing The Clash, The Specials and Red Wedge in rehashed, well worn, video transferred old TV footage. The images in White Riot are so sharp you could be mistaken for thinking some of it is newly shot dramatisation. The gig and news footage is contextualised with clips of British TV from the era. Racist context was all around. There were a considerable number of pricks to kick against.
The old villains of the era like Tory MP (and would be British Hitler) Enoch Powell and National Front (gammon with a chip on his shoulder) leader John Tyndall are obviously there. Early on their rhetoric is matched by megastars of the era Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart supporting them openly. Hearing household names like Stewart saying “Powell is the Man for me, He’s got to get those immigrants out” and Clapton ranting “Get the foreigners out…” from the stage in Birmingham galvanised many youthful music fans against the old guard.
White Riot is the story of the movement known as RAR who put on hundreds of gigs in the late 70’s. The context and the groundswell momentum of Rock Against Racism in the early days is beautifully illustrated with animated graphics that looks straight out of the ‘zines and art spaces of the era and of course it’s all edited to some truly magnificent music. The firebrand ‘zine of the time Temporary Hoarding becomes headquarters for the movement against fascism in the 1970’s British youth. It won hearts and minds and united school kids in the streets against an older generation determined to radicalise their youth and blame the downtrodden for the political shortcomings of the era. Any of that sounding 2020-ish?
White Riot is also a hopeful film. It has real grime under its fingernails but it’s not all dirt. There’s Tippex, printer ink and t-shirt dye along with the clean-up from dealing with turds through letter boxes. The work done by Temporary Hoarding on informing a generation of youths about the risks of the eras Sus Law (think the stop and search laws of today, with added snatching black youths from the street and dishing out prison sentences for looking like you might be thinking about doing something) queer rights, demonstrations, and how to avoid being jumped by Nazi skins on your way home from a show was vital. Without mobile phones or social media this work was essential. Seeing how they teamed up with the Anti-Nazi League, the bands of the era won over the cultural music press, to take on a blatantly racist police force and mainstream media, is a compelling narrative.
If that (for some reason) doesn’t pique your interest, there is another virtue to White Riot I would like to extol. Rubika Shah has made a terrific music documentary. The context is everything and yet, if you’re just here for the tunes, you’ve got so many riches to enjoy. From vintage punk shows and interviews with bands to great shots of 1970’s street fashion to amazing on-stage footage of The Clash playing with Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 in front of 100,000 fans at a milestone event in rock and roll history. Not bad for a film about politics.
White Riot has quite rightly won a number of Best Documentary awards at film festivals already. It doesn’t tell the whole story but gets you to the point where the scene went properly over-ground. It gets you to the jump off where things really seemed like they could change for the better. Pop and politics do mix. In the words of Mick Jones “Turn the fuckin’ power on“