Wednesday 16 September 2020


Set against a backdrop of a rising right wing political ideology and how members of the punk, reggae and ska music scenes fought against it through the Rock Against Racism campaign, Rubika Shah's White Riot follows the creation of the Temporary Hoarding magazine by a group of artists and journalists, and the triumphant Rock Against Racism concert they organised when tensions were at their highest.

Although the Victoria Park Rock Against Racism concert is the main event, this is not in any means a concert film; in fact, the actual concert only occupies about ten minutes of the running time towards the end. Shah's documentary is more concerned with exploring the political atmosphere at the time that would necessitate the need for the concert, with the shameful views of Enoch Powell and National Front leader Martin Webster allowed on TV along with shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Love Thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show that went towards creating a nation of disenfranchised white youths, willing to blame people based on skin colour alone. 

It's got a hell of a pounding, propulsive soundtrack, including The Clash's London Calling and the eponymous White Riot (band member Topper Headon is on hand to stress that the far-right faction that chanted along to the latter obviously didn't listen too closely to the lyrics), Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs, Sham 69, and the now unfortunately, ironically named Tom Robinson Band. It makes no bones about outing the views a number of famous musicians aired at the time, with 'the great coloniser' of Blues, Eric Clapton spouting some horrendous racist remarks, and punk icon Johnny Rotten coming out of it pleasingly well by saying he "despise(s)" the National Front at a time when punk was readily adopting nazi uniforms and iconography.

But separate from all the celebrity musician interviews and footage of riots and protests on the nation's streets, the core of the film is the grass roots efforts of a small number of people, including the co-founder of Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the politics and music magazine that documented their efforts, Temporary Hoarding, Red Saunders. Saunders, a photographer and sometime performance artist, is the chief contributor to the film and documentary gold who put himself in the heat of the action serving as the frontman for the RAR campaign. Now in his 70s and sporting a mighty beard, it's the interviews with him that drive the film, whether it be rediscovering old issues of Temporary Hoarding that helped reach out to the youth before the NF got their hands on them, old TV interviews between him and Janet Street Porter or him posting letters in the NME telling Clapton what he thinks of him ("who shot the sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you"). The importance of Temporary Hoarding and the artists and writers who contributed cannot be understated, and even the punk aesthetics of the magazine have clearly been an influence on the visual design of this film.

As the film heads towards its finale, with prominent and influential musicians willing to attend protests (although it's noted that The Clash were "too cool to hold placards") and perform at the Victoria Park concert, there's the hopeful sense that the movement was winning out against the fascists, as can be seen be the sheer number of attendees to the pre-concert march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. Saunders told the local council that they expected 500 people to turn up to the gig. Actual numbers vary depending on which person you speak to, but safe to say that number was eclipsed.

What's most concerning about Shah's documentary (that I first saw when it premiered at last year's London Film Festival where it won the Grierson Award), is that 40 years after the events of the film and in the 11 months since I first saw it, the issues it raises about right-wing rhetoric and the excessive force used against peaceful protesters by a biased police force have only become more applicable to our times. It was a topical film then, it feels vital now. It's not a film that's factoid heavy but that is unapologetically political, utilising its wealth of archive footage to show how the NF were able to gain traction among the youth of the day, but also how a combination of great music, truth and the power of protest can be an unstoppable force.



White Riot is in cinemas from Friday.

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